Kenneth HESKETH (b. 1968)
Dei Destini Incrociati (2002) [12:02]
Aphorisms (1995) [10:23]
Fra Duri Scogli (2002) [4:33]
Three Pieces in the Shape of a Shoe (2005) [7:24]
Theatre of Attractions (2007) [23:32]
Psappha/Nicholas Kok
rec. Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, University of Manchester; Studio 7, BBC New Broadcasting House, Manchester; Great Hall, Lancaster University. DDD. Dates not supplied
Available for download from Amazon or iTunes or via the composer’s website;
Kenneth Hesketh is now in his 45th year. It seems remarkable for a composer of his standing that this is the first commercially available CD wholly dedicated to his music. Yet, true to the cliché of the proverbial London bus, we find that a second disc of his work is about to be released hot on its heels. As this review is being written, NMC has announced a recording dedicated to Hesketh’s music for orchestra and large ensemble.
In the meantime we have this collection of chamber works spanning the years 1995 to 2007. It is played here with considerable élan. This provides a fascinating window on the evolving direction of the composer’s considerable output across more than a decade.
The earliest work, Aphorisms for solo clarinet was originally written for Derek Bermel. Here it is played with magnificent commitment and virtuosity by Psappha’s Dov Goldberg, although not credited as such on the CD. It is a bold, gesturally flamboyant set of five miniatures, each carrying a vivid performance instruction such as Fantastico, Agitato and Frenetico. They are all words that could equally be applied to many passages in Hesketh’s works but here, scaled down to a solitary unaccompanied instrument. The extremes of emotion and expression that inhabit the music are hyper-exposed in five dramatic, tersely pithy declamations united only by an upwardly swooping chromatic gesture heard at the very beginning and end.
Written for the Triolog Ensemble and premiered at the 2003 Munich Biennale, Dei Destini Incrociati draws its structure from the novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino. The composer takes Calvino’s use of the Tarot as ‘story telling machine’ as the basis for a twelve minute work that is anchored around a number of cell-like motifs that manifest themselves in differing ways. There’s a stuttering, mercurial opening characterized by Hesketh’s acute and often beguiling ear for colour and transparency. The effect overall is not unlike walking around a maze, with a sense of déjà-vu often apparent as glimpses of rhythmic figuration, melody and harmony leap from the glisteningly nuanced textures.
Its brief sister work Fra Duri Scogli occupies rather different if no less colourful territory. It takes as its starting point a fifteenth century madrigal by Florentine abbot Don Paolo di Firenze. This is fused and entwined with Hesketh’s own creative DNA and the outcome is not unlike a more intensely dramatic response to Oliver Knussen’s Music for a Puppet Court. Hesketh originally conceived this piece and Dei Destini Incrociati as a diptych.
Hesketh’s chamber opera The Overcoat (after Gogol) has spawned several creative offshoots. These include the Three Pieces in the Shape of a Shoe of 2005. Scored for clarinet, cello and piano, the instrumental forces are exploited in an extravagant and at times wildly extrovert fashion. Each of the pieces - marked Agitato, Volutuoso, Allegro Vivace, minacioso - provides an instrumental ‘commentary’ on Gogol’s chief protagonist Akaky Bashmakin. The biting, sarcasm-tinged wit of much of the music remains prevalent throughout, effectively condensing into microcosm much of the overall thrust and atmosphere of the original operatic score.
Theatre of Attraction is the most recent and most substantial work on the recording. It also exhibits the greatest shift in Hesketh’s creative language over the span of the five works.
Whilst not completely absent, the mercurial elements of the earlier works here give way to passages that although fantastically scored, inhabit a more darkly-hued sound-world. Obsessive rhythms are combined with immense elemental energy that spills over into unbridled aggression and an manic sense of propulsion. It’s an intensity that is clearly evident in the opening movement, Time’s Music Box. From a quiet opening punctuated by irregular cracks on wood-block, the music develops a latent, bristling power that eventually winds down before the lid quietly closes shut.
The contrast with the flickering, twilit colours of the central dreamscape L’heure dorée in which alto flute floats a haunting melodic strand over shifting underlying textures could hardly be more marked. The final section, Marionette, propels the work through a nightmarish, headlong dash that ultimately finds an uneasy, threatening stillness fractured by screaming instrumental exclamations.
Psappha’s playing under Nicholas Kok is emotionally compelling, driven and utterly tuned into Hesketh’s creative aesthetic. The disc as a whole provides an illuminating cross-section of the composer’s chamber output.

Christopher Thomas

Emotionally compelling and driven … an illuminating cross-section of the composer’s chamber output.