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Opera - New Works for Violin and Piano
Joe CUTLER (b.1968)
Re(GAIA) (2000) [5:36]
Richard CAUSTON (b.1971)
Seven States of Rain (2002) [11:32]
Joseph PHIPPS (b.1974)
Fantasia (1997) [8:15]
Bryn HARRISON (b.1969)
Listenings I (2001) [17:23]
Jonathan POWELL
Intrecciata (2003) [4:46]
Morgan HAYES (b.1973)
Opera (2003) [6:50]
Darragh Morgan (violin)
Mary Dullea (piano)
rec. Gateway Studios, Kingston, December 2002 to March 2003
NMC D108 [55:00]

Duo Morgan and Dullea chose the title ‘OPERA’ for this CD ‘partly for its humorous potential - we thought it would perhaps inadvertently increase sales’ but also with the original meaning of the word in mind – this being, ‘after all, a collection of ‘works’.’ I have my doubts as to whether confusing your public as to the content of a recording will increase sales – it might sooner increase ire. Fortunately however, the subtitle ‘new works for violin and piano’ is clearly enough printed even for the darkest of basement classical CD departments.
It is interesting to compare the differing tastes of duos, and going head to head with Alexandra Wood and Huw Watkins’ ‘Chimera’ CD - another contemporary violin and piano recital I have reviewed this month - the recording acoustic is drier and less immediately appealing. The violin is also a little more forward, with the piano slightly indistinct at times, as if we are in a concert situation where the raised podium gives us an indirect – more of a reflected - sound. These are mild comments, and I don’t want to be negative about what are after all a series of performances which have been made in the presence of each of the composers. For the more hard-hitting, cutting-edge nature of the works here the sound is entirely appropriate, and as with all such things the ear adjusts – I just found myself wanting to be a bit closer to the piano, just a smidge.
The programme book can’t make up its mind if Joe Cutler’s solo violin piece is called re(GAIA) or (re)GAIA. Either way, it is an energetic exploration of double-stopping around open strings. The title and material spring from an earlier work, GAIA for solo viola, and Cutler describes it as depicting ‘a type of “earth-music” – an imaginary ancient folk music.’ This is an apt commentary, but the piece goes a great deal further than folksy roaming around in first position, being a virtuosic showpiece with which to open the programme.
Seven States of Rain by Richard Causton ‘invokes the poetry of rain in its various moods and forms.’ Pizzicato notes from the violin are echoed in the piano by prepared, dampened strings, invoking immediate memories of John Cage, but effectively uniting the violin and piano in a refreshing way. The piece’s seven sections progress through more conventional bowed violin and untreated piano strings, contrasting in nature from violence through gentler reflection in an expressive, if somewhat angular chorale. The elements are combined and layered, and finally arch through a weighty climax toward a solo piano chorale: ‘the endless, grey rain of an afternoon.’
Joseph Phipps’ Fantasia is another work of contrasts, ‘sudden and dramatic changes of mood ... and alternation of mechanical, repeated patterns ... with freer, quasi-rubato expressive material.’ Indeed, but the result is fairly static, a result of the brevity and relative discontinuity of these contrasts, and extended passages of ‘cadenza’ like violin writing over sustained chords in the piano. I like the sonorities and expressive variety in this work, but if it was me I would cut the whole thing by about three minutes.
Bryn Harrison’s Listenings I has an immediate ‘Morton Feldman’ feel to it. He describes the piece as a ‘kind of meditation on a single musical gesture which is repeated, mantra-like ... but each time subjected to a musical process which allows the material to be subtly expanded, contracted or displaced through octave transposition.’ The piano creates sculptural shapes in its own, over-pedalled soundscape, while the violins notes, sparing and limited in the extreme, fly, swoop and hover overhead like some kind of irritable bird of prey. Again, I love it, but as process music goes it didn’t grab me by the balls and make me listen in quite the same way as Feldman or Goeyvaerts. At over 17 minutes I was ready to leave the room about half-way.
Intrecciata means ‘plait’ or something woven together’, says Jonathan Powell about his piece. Powell is an incredible pianist with recordings of Sorabji under his belt, so the virtuoso piano writing isn’t entirely unexpected. With no further commentary on the work we are left with just the music, which may or may not be a stampede of brilliance. It is intense and convoluted, with a turbulent opening, quieter (but brief) middle, rhythmic development and conclusion with breaks and gaps, and a spare fading to almost nothing, capped with a musical full stop. Like a certain newspaper, it says what it wants to say and lets you get on with your life, probably deeply unaffected by what you’ve heard.
So to the title track. ‘Opera takes its title from the 1987 film by the Italian director Dario Argento ... (whose story) concerns a jinxed production of Verdi’s Macbeth.’ The piece is inspired by the technical and atmospheric nature of the film rather than commenting on it in a programmatic way, ‘hopefully to capture some of that particular sense of heightened awareness characteristic of Argento’s film-making.’ There is a great deal to get your teeth into here, from the loneliness of the opening lines, right though to the hobbling, uneven rhythms of the ending. I’ve made the comparison before, but this is one of those pieces which unfold like a short story, except in this case you are never quite sure what is around the next corner. The subjects and musical pictures resonate on in the mind even after the final sentence or, as the late Derek and Clive might put it, in pictorial terms; ‘the eyes follow you around the room.’
Congratulations to performers, composers and the NMC for giving us another stimulating and variety-packed helping of brand new music. You can play and listen to Brahms for the rest of your life, but you can’t ask him to write you a new sonata!
Dominy Clements


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