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Brian FERNEYHOUGH (b. 1943)
Missa Brevis (1969) [14.23]
The Doctrine of Similarity (13 Canons) (1999-2000) [28.71]
Two Marian Motets (1966/2002) [10.12]
Stelae for Failed Time (2001) [14.06]
BBC Singers
Lontano/Odaline de la Martinez
rec. Maida Vale Studio 1, 15 August 2003 (Doctrine of Similarity), 26 August 2004 (Stelae for Failed Time); St. Silas Kentish Town, 25 February 2005 (Missa Brevis), 2 September 2005 (Marian Motets)
METIER MSV28501 [67.12]

In the late 1960s Brian Ferneyhough was working on a setting of the Latin mass and on two Latin motets. Following the Vatican Council in 1965, Latin texts were falling out of use in the Roman Catholic Church and certainly they were not popular with the European avant-garde. But then Ferneyhough has always ploughed his own, very distinctive furrow. The complex nature of the musical idiom of these pieces was far removed from the prevailing British musical aesthetic. Their religious nature was antithetical to the European composers with whom Ferneyhough had the most in common. Also extremely complex settings of Latin text were unlikely to be of practical use.

In fact the first of the two Marian motets was never fully finished and Ferneyhough only returned to it in 2002 whilst he was working on his opera Shadowtime, excerpts from which form the remainder of the disc. Not that these Shadowtime off-cuts can be regarded as bleeding chunks, both The Doctrine of Similarity and Stelae for Failed Time are pieces which work in their own right, free-standing and independent. This means that on one disc we have choral works spanning nearly 40 years of Ferneyhough’s career.

The Missa Brevis was written in 1968 and 1969. During its writing Ferneyhough attended the Gaudeamus festival. This triggered his move away from the conservative British establishment - Ferneyhough studied with Lennox Berkeley - signified by his moving to Amsterdam.

Though billed as a choral work, the piece is written for 12 solo singers. In the Kyrie the singers throw the individual syllables of the text around in apparently random fashion. This randomness coalesces into a three-choir antiphonal format. In his introduction to the piece the composer explains that he only realised the need to impose some sort of discipline on the disorderly proliferation of voices in the opening. The Gloria uses a lot of spoken and whispered text, with approximate pitches complementing the notated pitches. In the Benedictus and Agnus Dei it is the rhythms which are notated approximately. By the end of the movement, the duration is dictated simply by the capacity of the first soprano’s lungs.

This is certainly not a traditional Missa Brevis and there is a sense that Ferneyhough is testing the text almost to destruction. I would be interested to hear how the piece worked in a liturgical context. Ferneyhough’s style is not easy on the ear, nor is it easy to sing. The BBC Singers are magnificent, though even they cannot disguise the strenuous nature of some of the passages. But you feel that Ferneyhough welcomes this; that both performers and listeners should have to work to make the piece possible. It is this feeling of joint struggle which gives the piece its special nature. Perhaps this feeling of common endeavour lends a rather unexpectedly modern cast to the ancient language and structure of the Latin mass.

The Doctrine of Similarity, for choir and ensemble, forms the third scene of Shadowtime. The opera is concerned with the final hours of the philosopher Walter Benjamin. This scene consists of 13 movements, each one a canon. During the course of the piece Ferneyhough explores all the ramifications of the historical use canons. The number of movements, 13, is a prime number and prime numbers are important throughout the whole opera.

Charles Bernstein wrote the texts specifically for the opera; prime numbers dominate the number of words per line and lines per stanza. The texts themselves re-work a number of Benjamin’s key obsessions but the nature of the work means that there is no resolution, words and music are locked into their structure formalism. An instrumental ensemble of piano, percussion, violin and three clarinets accompanies the choir. But four movements are unaccompanied. One movement is purely instrumental and the exact composition of the instrumental ensemble varies from movement to movement.

As far as the canons are concerned, there are straight rhythmic canons, canons in diminution - a canon where subsequent entries reduce the note values - and canons in augmentation - note values are increased. Sometimes the canons are obvious; sometimes not. The 4th movement includes an isorhythmic motet from the Montepelier Codex. An isorhythmic motet is one where a rhythmic pattern is repeated in one or more voices, so it can be seen as a species of canon. This is a very unusual example of Ferneyhough incorporating foreign material into his work.

If all this sounds strange and formalistic, then fear not. Ferneyhough transforms these concepts into music that is passionate and fascinating. As in the Missa Brevis, the listener must work to appreciate the piece. The choral writing is more traditional than in the Missa Brevis, but is perhaps even more difficult; not that you would know this from the confident way the BBC Singers and Lontano play the pieces.

The piece is not obviously part of an opera, but then Shadowtime is hardly a traditional opera; the 2nd scene is in fact a guitar concerto.

The final scene of the opera is for choir accompanied by pre-recorded tape – sounds that are metallic and percussive. Also on the tape is the composer’s own voice, at first muttering and then of greater importance. The result is strange and dazzling. The choir sing different texts simultaneously and the text incorporates a made-up language. The computer-produced accompaniment, though pre-calulated and generated, actually consists of some 120 individual figures that are cued by the conductor of the ensemble. A brilliant combination of live performance and pre-recorded material, typical of Ferneyhough’s complex attitude to his musical materials.

The two Marian Motets, Ave mater gloriosa salvatoris and Alma redemptoris Mater are typically non-liturgical in their attitude to the text. Alma redemptoris Mater is a relatively straightforward setting, though of course nothing is ever really straightforward in Ferneyhough’s sound-world. Ave mater gloriosa salvatoris is more complex and you sense that Ferneyhough’s wrestling with the text and his musical materials were the cause of the piece only being completed in 2002.

The disc was made in association with the BBC; utilising recordings made over a two year period. This is another example of how the BBC seem to be opening up their catalogue of recordings.

The BBC Singers under Odaline de la Martinez perform brilliantly. They are fearless in their ability to transform Ferneyhough’s vocal lines into music. The disc expects a lot of both singers and listeners. But as I said earlier, the sense of struggle seems to be integral to the pieces. Don’t buy this disc if you are looking for easy listening. But in a world where contemporary classical music seems to be increasingly minimal or post-Modern, Ferneyhough’s brand of maximal modernism acts as a beacon to us all.

Robert Hugill



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