2011 is shaping up to be a good year for Irish composer Ian Wilson - four of his orchestral works, including a violin concerto, were recently released as Volume 5 of RTÉ Lyric FM's commendable 'Composers of Ireland' series - see review. This disc features two of Wilson's latest string quartets; the first six are also available on CD - see reviews here and here. His newest quartet, no.12, was premiered in London this April.
Wilson has a habit, not entirely useful or endearing, of giving his works quirky/zany titles which often border on the pretentious, sometimes involving 'arty' or random punctuation: re:play, for example, sports a colon and a cummingsian non-capital initial. Other titles include …wander, darkling, Mais quand elle sourit… sKiPpY and Licht/ung.
All of this is pardonable, naturally, if the work is good enough, and in general Wilson writes imaginative, expressive music that may sometimes cede little ground to tonality or melody, but whose visceral excitement yields its own rewards with patience. Nevertheless, the three works on this CD are more of a mixed bag.
The opening minute or two of re:play may cause a momentary loss of orientation - the listener may well feel dropped into an 1960s underground jazz club, with the improvising saxophone, double bass and piano doing all the initial running in a piece that, according to the notes, "articulates that dialogue [...] between the jazz and classical worlds". Though objectively a fairly listener-friendly work, Re:play has positioned itself in an awkward no-man's-land between those two realms - there is perhaps altogether too much jazz for art music fans to feel entirely comfortable, and too much of a 'classical' vibe to appeal other than fleetingly to jazz cognoscenti. Though no hawker of crossover fluff, Wilson undeniably inhabits the fashionable quarters of 'new music', and it may well be that this work was written with the trendy post-modern audience in mind, with its known propensity for category fusion.
Across a Clear Blue Sky was commissioned by RTÉ to mark Seamus Heaney's 70th birthday. The title comes from the first line of the second stanza of Heaney's 2004 poem 'Anything Can Happen', though musically is unrelated. Wilson's score includes an eyebrow-raising "two portable analogue radios and four drumming toys". The piece begins with the static of an FM radio that is then retuned a few times, before the proper music arrives on whining strings. What the point of this introduction is remains unclear - the abstruse notes throw little light on the matter. The radio announcer clearly mentions the ubiquitous US pop 'icon' known as Lady Gaga - perhaps Wilson wants to show that he is au courant with the latest modes from the pop world, or maybe he wishes to date-stamp his piece. Dates of works, incidentally, are not given anywhere in the booklet - those listed above have come from Wilson's website.
About three-quarters of the way through Across a Clear Blue Sky, after several fairly abrasive minutes of glissandi, furious bowing and pungent chords, the static and radio tuning return while the soloists almost sheepishly play on. This may have seemed a trendy thing to do at the time, but Wilson is probably going to want rewrite this in ten or twenty years to rescue the interesting music from the blandness of it. The arrival of some wind-up toys at the end does not have the same annoyance factor, but the wrong-mindedness of the radio interference is encapsulated by the producer's need to fade down the static to silence in order to finish the work.
Im Schatten, Wilson's eleventh string quartet, is a considerably more substantial work, and thankfully the score sticks to traditional parts. As the notes put it: "As though in a hall of mirrors, the original violin line is heard in multiple distorted and fragmented versions of itself, such that it almost becomes overwhelmed by its own reflections. Subject and shadow become interchangeable: we are back to the blurring of reality and apparition." Im Schatten is a slow-moving, sparse work, full of low-profile fits and starts, not self-evidently structured or directional. Given its length, the listener accustomed to the string quartets of Beethoven, Shostakovich or even Webern is likely to find this long-winded and heavy-going, at least at first listen. Yet there are snippets of melody, and few segments that would surprise Schoenberg, Bartók or Janáček - it is simply that the totality is quite different.
Opinions will thus vary as to the profundity or interest of Wilson's works on this recording. There is no doubting the fine performances on offer, particularly by the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, who make their way with great composure through the nuances, subtleties and technical difficulties of Wilson's string writing. Sound quality is very good indeed.
As far as the booklet notes go, Tim Rutherford-Johnson seems to be under the illusion that he was writing them for a sociology symposium, such is the level of linguistic and cultural affectation. Of Across a Clear Blue Sky, for example, he writes: "Wilson's materials - almost 'readymades' - have been so purged of content that juxtaposition, the touching of one surface upon another [sic], is almost all that is left. The different regions of sound are shadow-like: they convey an absence, yet when they touch and intersect - like the light sculptures of László Moholy-Nagy - forms, textures, presence."
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