Irvine Arditti is human! The proof is right here on the first
track, Terrain. It is one of the many pieces written
by new complexity composers for Arditti, at his urging but also
presumably under the assumption that no mere mortal would ever
be able to play it, or even have the guts to try. But no, here
is a performance from somebody else - the violinist Graeme Jennings
- that does the music full justice. It is lively, precise and
focused, a harbinger perhaps of a new generation of Ferneyhough
performers who are both willing and able to take up the challenges.
In the following tracks, the prospects become even more promising.
Every work here is for a concertante instrument with small ensemble,
and the playing from both the youngish soloists and the youngish
chamber orchestra is incredible throughout. Performing Ferneyhough
involves reconciling a paradox. He is a composer who has repeatedly
stated that his music should be precisely executed rather than
interpreted. Yet this music is full of life and energy, and
as much of it comes from the performers as from the scores.
To express the impulsive energy of this music, while always
remaining faithful to the detail is quite an achievement.
Timbre provides continual variety on the disc, both in terms
of choice of solo instruments and of makeup of the ensemble.
The solo instruments are violin, guitar duet, viola and finally
solo guitar, while the instruments of the ensemble include bass
flute, E flat clarinet, soprano trombone and bass trumpet. None
of this eases the practicality of performance, but it does allow
the composer a sophisticated palette from which to divine his
subtle textures. You won't find much lyricism here, and most
of the sounds are of the dull or mildly abrasive variety. That
doesn't make it sound very attractive, but the subtle gradation
of timbre between the instruments makes for endlessly fascinating
sounds. The solo clarinet in La Chute d'Icare is cast
against type to a certain extent, so used are we to hearing
the clarinet as a lyrical voice. But the choice of instrument,
here and throughout the disc, is ideal.
no time (at all) is for two guitars tuned a quarter-tone
apart. The effect is reminiscent of the early micro-tonalists,
particularly Haba and Wyschnegradsky, for whom the quarter-tone
piano was the instrument of choice, a sound which the plucked
strings of the guitars seem almost consciously to imitate. Ferneyhough
has written a number of works for guitar in recent years, and
although I don't know his motivations, it is an instrument that
suits his music. The classical guitarist is, after all, a performer
who is habitually addressing musical complexities with a minimum
of means. The composer seems to have embraced this onstage conflict
between the performer and the dots, and to have upped the ante
with thrilling results.
Anybody who was unfortunate enough to have sat through Ferneyhough's
disastrous 'opera' Shadowtime a few years ago may be
relieved to hear that the composer has salvaged something from
the wreckage. The opera's main problems were dramatic rather
than musical, specifically that there isn't any drama, just
a few singers walking on in front of the orchestra occasionally
to deliver a soliloquy. The most frustrating thing was that
the story Ferneyhough had chosen, about the death of Walther
Benjamin, is actually very interesting and lends itself naturally
to operatic treatment. Anyway, the last work on this disc, Les
Froissements d'Ailes de Gabriel, is taken from Shadowtime;
it is one of the extended interludes. The choice of guitar as
solo instrument may be intended to evoke Spain, the country
Benjamin was fleeing to at the time of his death, but Ferneyhough
rarely goes in for anything that literal. The piece is very
bitty: long but made up of short, only tenuously linked sections.
Historical pastiche perhaps, alluding to Webern's contemporaneous
scores? Again, that's not really Ferneyhough's thing. The piece
is the least successful on the disc, but there is still plenty
of interest here, particularly the timbres and instrumental
effects. In general, though, it seems that the rambling incoherence
and lack of structural focus that plagues Ferneyhough's opera
is as evident in the excerpts as it is in the complete work.