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Brian FERNEYHOUGH (b. 1943)
Shadowtime (2003-4)
Nicolas Hodges (piano, speaker); Mats Scheidegger (guitar)
Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart; Nieuw Ensemble/Jurjen Hempel
rec. live, English National Opera, London Coliseum, July 2005
NMC D123 [64:42 + 62:02]
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An opera by Ferneyhough, who once described opera as "an inherently dirty medium", must come as a complete surprise. Shadowtime is no ordinary opera in the generally accepted sense. There is very little action as such. The first scene, provocatively subtitled Prologue, is the only part of the work that may vaguely resemble an operatic tableau. Its six "levels" invoking various periods of Walter Benjamin’s life up to the moment in 1940 when he tried to escape from France through Spain are superimposed rather than chronologically ordered.

The second scene Les Froissements d’Ailes de Gabriel is a concerto for guitar and ensemble, with neither words nor action, accompanying the projection of images in real time. The music is made of 128 small fragments played continuously . "We are continually thrown back and forth ... between realizing we need to attempt to understand the next texture, but not having entirely understood where to place the previous texture or the one before that" (the composer’s words). This typical Ferneyhough statement belies the real impact of what is probably the most readily accessible music in the entire opera.

The third scene (The Doctrine of Similarity), consisting of thirteen canons for vocal ensemble and instruments, has Benjamin’s shadow (or "avatar") reflecting on the nature of history, time and transformation. The fourth scene Opus Contra Naturam, subtitled "Descent of Benjamin into the Underworld"), is "a shadow play for speaking pianist" (Charles Bernstein) located in a fictional place between Las Vegas and 1920s Weimar. Why Las Vegas, I hear someone ask. "... because Las Vegas seems to me to be the hyper-simulation of the world ... and the main [portal] of the Underworld". Ferneyhough’s words left me none the wiser.

The fifth scene (Pools of Darkness, subtitled "Eleven Interrogations"), like the third scene, consists of eleven short sections, a "quick run through the entire history of Western music, from about the year 1000 up to about 1825" (Brian Ferneyhough). These two scenes may be a tribute to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Benjamin’s avatar is interrogated by a series of masked, haunting figures, as diverse as Karl Marx and Groucho Marx, Pope Pius XII, Joan of Arc, Adolf Hitler, Albert Einstein and the Golem, to mention a few, each interrogation being set in a particular musical form, such as Passacaglia, Hoquetus, Dramatic Madrigal a Due, Fugato, etc., in a Scherzo of sorts. The title of the sixth scene (Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia) alludes to Dürer’s engraving showing "a dejected, winged figure, surrounded by instruments of scientific enquiry" (Charles Bernstein). Once again, the source of words is wide-ranging; so, for example, tableaux 1 and 4 are reworkings of poems by Heine, whereas Tableau 3 is "based on permutations of phrases from Benjamin’s essay Hashish in Marseilles and Tableau 5 "a set of imaginary epigrams".

The final scene (Stelae for Failed Time) is again in two layers: one reflecting on time and uncertainty, and the other on representation (Charles Bernstein). The concluding scene, the opera’s epilogue, also has Ferneyghough’s ‘real’ voice "fading in a sort of spatialized spiral, which goes on quite a long time" (the composer’s words).

This brief and sketchy summary actually says very little about what is going on in the piece, but clearly hints (I hope!) at the complexity, sometimes verging on obscurity or esoterics. Shadowtime is no ordinary opera. All the scenes, apart from the outer ones, may be performed separately as concert works, in much the the same way as the various parts of Carceri d’Invenzione. Charles Bernstein’s libretto is conspicuously devoid of dramatic elements, so that the work may rightly be described as a "thought opera", to quote Bernstein’s phrase. Is it an opera at all? I suppose that the question must remain open for the time being.

Musically, it is as absorbing as anything else in this composer’s output. No easy stuff, for sure, often thought-provoking and starkly uncompromising; but I found the whole less strongly compelling than some other Ferneyhough pieces such as the impressive, if equally obscure Transit - of which a re-issue of Decca’s earlier recording made during the LP era is long overdue - or the string quartets. For whatever reason, the music does not grab me by the scruff of the neck, as it so often does. I found myself curiously uninvolved, though by no means bored.

What might be taken for a lukewarm appreciation has nothing to do with the excellent performance that this terribly demanding piece receives. I really admire the conviction and commitment of all the musicians involved, while being strongly impressed by Ferneyhough’s uncompromising intellect. I do not in the least question the composer’s sincerity and integrity, but I simply think that he is asking too many things from his potential audience. I recently came across another Ferneyhough disc (Stradivarius STR 33694) in which the insert notes’ author, Alessandro Melchiorre, wrote that "listening to Brian Ferneyhough’s music, falling under its spell, is like accepting an invitation to enter a labyrinth". I found this an apt description. This is music that leads you through many unexpected turns and twists towards some mysterious goal only known to the composer; but the experience is well worth the effort.

In short, I am still not sure whether I like the piece, or whether it really works as an opera. However, it is undoubtedly a major work, not easily grasped as a whole, that does not yield its secrets easily. It will need many repeated hearings as well as close study of the libretto. Unfortunately this is not reprinted in the excellent insert notes by Fabrice Fitch though we do get Bernstein’s synopsis as well as comments by the composer, from all of which I have generously and unashamedly quoted. The libretto and other information may be found on http:/

A major release of a major work, but be prepared to face something quite unusual.

Hubert Culot


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