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Naresh SOHAL (b.1939)
Chamber Music: Volume 1

Chiaroscuro II (1976)
Con Tempo String Quartet
Shades IV for solo viola (1982)
Rivka Golani (viola)
Shades VI for solo violin (2001)
Cristina Angelescu (violin)
Trio for piano, violin and cello (1990)
Cristina Angelescu (violin); Adrian Mantu (cello); Malcolm Troup (piano)
Hexad for flute, horn, percussion, violin, cello and bass [1971]
Daniel Pailthorpe (flute, Timothy Jackson (horn, Richard Benjufield, (percussion); Anne Solomon (violin); Michael Atkinson (cello); Paul Sherman (double-bass); Roger Montgomery (director)
rec. Gateway Studio, Kingston, June 2001. DDD
MERU CD 001 [69.06]

This CD is available from the Naresh Sohal Society which is run by Dennis Day ( and has recorded been under the sponsorship of Vinay Relan and N.C.Blythe. Members of the British Music Society may recall an article on Sohal in the June newsletter 2005, at the end of which this CD was advertised as available.

It consists of five works composed over a period from 1971-2001 and therefore represents a wide range of development in the composer.

The first work is ‘Chiaroscuro II’ for string quartet first played by the Arditti Quartet in Holland in 1976 at a period when Sohal was more regularly heard on the airwaves and in the concert hall. Indeed he had recently been the recipient of an Arts Council Grant. It is typical of its period. A casual and unsympathetic listener might describe this atonal work as ‘squeaky gate’ music or to put it in the words of the anonymous booklet writer ‘The work aims to display a multitude of shades within the colour spectrum of the string quartet –hence its title". It is interesting and relevant to know, as Dennis Day has recently told me, that at the time of composing this work the composer had become a keen amateur painter. The title really hints at a technique of painting items against a darker background and in a very real sense this is exactly what happens here. In any case it is full of the use of extreme ranges throughout the piece. The work is in three tense sections which drift into each other ending in deep melancholia.

Shades IV for solo viola comes next and this is a very impressive achievement. Writing for a solo instrument is always a major compositional challenge but Sohal rises to it wonderfully; and why not, as it was written for Rivka Golani one of the very best of violists. It begins, harp-like with a gentle pizzicato presentation of the instruments open strings, a motif which returns throughout the piece and acts as a kind of theme upon which variants are imposed. I say harp-like but perhaps I should say sitar-like as this piece does particularly give me the impression in places of being ‘Indian’ in inspiration if I can say that. Although it is not easy to pinpoint I could mention the keening modality of certain yearning phrases and the use of quarter-tones in a variant of the open strings idea at about six minutes in. Sohal has in fact written works with definite inspiration from his homeland like ‘Indra-Dhanush’ in 1973 and ‘Gautama Buddha’ in 1987.

Although not always gripped by works for unaccompanied instruments this one proved fascinating and clever and with its faster and passionate final two minutes proved emotionally satisfying.

Later on the CD, comes another ‘Shades’ piece, the much shorter number VI for solo violin .To quote the booklet notes again ‘Shades in a generic term for a series of pieces created by the composer which aim to make full use of their potential range of timbres and techniques of various instruments". (Just as he had done in the aforementioned string quartet) This is the most recent work on the CD having been written for the brilliant Rumanian born Cristina Anghelescu in 2001 after hearing her play the Beethoven concerto. Indeed this work seems to be inspired by the big broad melodies of the Beethoven especially in the first section with its beautiful use of double-stopping. Again we have three sections and again the speed increases as the work progresses. This is an even more virtuosic work that Shades IV and the stratospheric writing at about five minutes in, is negotiated with seeming ease and grace by Anghelescu. Lucky the composer who receives such a committed and brilliant performance.

I was able to hear again, courtesy of Dennis Day, after well over twenty years, Sohal’s extraordinary 50 minute ‘The Wanderer’ for Chorus, baritone solo and orchestra performed for its one and only time, at the Proms under Andrew Davies in 1981. One thing that particularly struck me is the composer’s economy of means bearing in mind such a large structure. Austere, ascetic even, but everything related to something else. This economy is also to be found in the Trio for piano, violin and cello which falls nicely on the CD between the two ‘Shades’ pieces. It also falls into three clear sections which float into each other beginning with a powerful repeated pedal and March-like and out-of-sink chords, and ending with a curious 7/8 eastern type dance which Holst would have enjoyed. It is mainly an unsmiling and gritty piece but one which involves its listeners and certainly does not outstay its welcome. Again this piece achieves a wonderfully committed and powerful performance with the music seemingly in the bones of the players.

The same comments also apply to the last work on the CD, a piece for what is the largest ensemble represented here and a piece which shows off Sohal’s powers of ‘orchestration’ in this limited grouping that is ‘ Hexad’ and it makes an excellent ending to this impressive disc. It is in six short and contrasted sections (sadly not separately tracked or indexed) and it is one of Sohal’s most performed works. It would be too tedious to describe each section but I will briefly say that there is a further use of quarter-tones (as noted earlier in ‘Shades IV’) in its rather exotic opening movement. Aleotoric techniques are used in the last movement where therefore an element of improvisation is used in which the players are each given a fragment from an earlier movement. Perhaps the composer did this because he felt that the work was too sectionalized and that there was a little too much contrasting music for the listeners to take in so it seemed a good idea to repeat some, even in such and unusual manner. There is an evocative use of the vibraphone especially in section one and of the Xylophone in section three. All in all a fascinating piece full of sounds heard nowhere else on the disc but whether the piece hangs together successfully only each listener can judge...

The CD comes with good liner notes and performer biographies, is perfectly well recorded and retails at mid-price. Copies are also available via the website above.


Gary Higginson



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