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Liz JOHNSON (b.1964)
Intricate Web
Fitzwilliam String Quartet
Loré Lixenberg (soprano) Ronald Woodley (clarinets, piano), Heather Tuach (cello)
rec. 2014-2016, St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay; May 2016 Henry Wood Hall, London Texts of vocal works included
MÉTIER MSV77206 [78:14+79:27]

Before receiving this CD, I had not heard a single work by British composer Liz Johnson (b.1964). I acknowledge her website and the first-rate liner notes for assistance with much of my review.

The heart of this CD is the four String Quartets: Johnson so far has composed six examples of the genre. Each of the quartets recorded here has a subtitle. It is fair to say that these are not essential ‘markers’ for an appreciation or enjoyment of this music. For example, String Quartet No.3 ‘Intricate Web’ alludes to the fact the a spider’s web provided the ‘source material’ for the ‘strange’ melodic line. The resulting music is often warm-hearted, but ultimately reflects the fact that we are trapped in a web that is partly of our making, but controlled by a greater destiny. We can enjoy this music even if we suffer from Arachnophobia!

‘Images of Trees’ (String Quartet No.1) was Johnson’s first instrumental piece which she wrote as a Masters student at the Birmingham Conservatoire. It was inspired by photos of trees (some included in the liner notes) from her local park. Although each movement is ‘focussed’ on one image – ‘clefts and fissures of bark’, ‘winter branches’ and a single ‘leaf’, this music can be approached ‘absolutely.’ Johnson has complete control over her musical material and the genre. The sound world is lyrical and introspective. This is a remarkable ‘first quartet.’

‘For Elliot’ (String Quartet No.2) was dedicated to her godson. The music here reflects the composer’s thoughts about the challenges facing a child ‘born into the last years of the twentieth century’. It is a remarkably ‘conventional’ work that successfully balances light and shade. The middle movement is a clever little ‘scherzo’ that utilises some aggressive pizzicato. It is not a ‘difficult’ work, but one that is immediately approachable. Once again it shows the composer’s mastery of her genre.

The final string quartet (No.4, 1999) in this collection includes a part for soprano. The text for ‘Sky-Burial’ was written by Kathleen Jamie, and describes ‘the journey and ceremony of a woman being carried through her dying and her death.’ It is a complex work that makes huge demands on the singer and quartet. Johnson writes that the she considered the string quartet the ‘right musical environment for the text, which needed to be evocative, strange, hallucinatory, deep, the meanings veiled and elusive.’ The resulting work is a master-class in writing for voice and for string quartet. If I am honest, I did not relate to this work: I do not feel that it is a ‘proper,’ absolute, string quartet, although Schoenberg and Berg have set precedents for this combination of singer and ensemble. In spite of my personal tastes, I can see that the setting is a finely-contrived synthesis of words and string quartet techniques. It is quite simply beautiful, and sung here to perfection.

The Clarinet Quintet ‘Sea-Change’ is a major work. Written for Ronald Woodley (the present soloist), it makes use of five different-sized clarinets. There is a textual inspiration for this work: David Hart’s poem ‘Crag Inspector’ about Bardsey Island (not printed in the liner notes).
I am not sure about the noises-off in this work: maybe ‘vocal shushes’, ‘throat-growls’ ‘squeaks’, ‘huffs’, ‘egg-shakers’ ‘claves’ from the soloist and quartet are just a wee bit too avant-garde for my taste. This aside, the music is impressive and does successfully present an image of ‘sea-change’, despite my not knowing Hart’s poem.

The short Fantasia Forty-something was a birthday present for the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s 40th anniversary: I guess it was for the anniversary of their first professional engagement in 1971. It is a fun piece, with just a touch of something more serious, that deconstructs the ‘Happy Birthday’ tune. Fragments of this tune, with notes reordered, are tossed around between the players.

The Cello Suite is stunning. I do wish that it had been presented in successive tracks rather than strung out throughout the CD. The work is dedicated to the artist Ben Hartley (1933-96): a selection of his paintings are included in the liner notes. The music explores a vast canvas of melody, harmonics and other string effects. The Suite has some scope for improvisation, and the composer ‘allows’ players to re-order the movements as they wish. To me, this suite is Johnson’s masterpiece (so far). It is not too much to say that it takes its place beside Bach, Britten and Ligeti.

Two works on these discs are inspired by Druidstone Beach in Pembrokeshire: look it up on the Internet! ‘Towards the Sea’ is conceived for clarinet, viola and cello. The musical imagery is of a walk along a path to the beach: each instrument singing its own song, with a ‘coming together in a series of gentle waves’ at the water’s edge. This is ‘nocturnal music’ that is often quiet, reflective and wonderfully descriptive of the location. Great sea-music. The other work that reflects this seascape is ‘Tide Purl.’ This short piece for string quartet was inspired by ‘the play of light on sand as river water flowed onto the beach…one evening.’ The work begins and ends on a single note, and explores several patterns based on the interval of a ‘third.’ This is a good impressionistic study of the sea. It is probably my favourite piece on this CD.

The four Jo Shapcott settings are marvellous examples of ‘expressionist’ songs of the kind made popular by Cathy Berberian. These are dramatic, sometimes disturbing, colourful and adventurous settings that impress and move the listener. They utilise just about every vocal trick in the book. They may not be to everyone’s taste but there is no escaping their effectiveness.
The other song is ‘Sleep Close’ (Gabriella Mistral) which is a sad lullaby to a dead child. They are all superbly and imaginatively sung by the soprano Loré Lixenberg.

As noted above, the liner notes are excellent. The presentation of the booklet is truly artistic: In fact, it reminds me of progressive rock LP album covers from my younger days in the 1970s. It has all the technical information required, a brief appreciation of the composer by Peter Johnson, some splendid art work by Dora Williams, Ben Hartley and John Barrett. The texts of the all the songs set are given, and are provided with some outstanding art work. The usual biographies of the artists are included. A model CD booklet.

This is an exciting album full of interesting music. Liz Johnson’ style is unashamedly modernist, with nods to avant-garde procedures that have been made mainstream over the past few decades. It is fantastic to discover a composer that has not succumbed to writing insipid post-modern music that has minimal impact and avoids stimulating the listener in any way.

All the works on these two CDs are approachable, sometimes challenging, musically vibrant, and ultimately satisfying.

John France

String Quartet No.3 ‘Intricate Web’ (2003) [10:11]
Cello Suite Part I (2015) [10:11]
‘Towards the Sea’ for clarinet, viola and cello (2000) [7:39]
Jo Shapcott Settings: ‘Cabbage Greens’ (2002) [6:54]
String Quartet No.1 ‘Images of Trees’ (1998) [13:51]
Sleep Close: song (1999) [5:58]
‘Tide Purl’ for string quartet (2013) [4:09]
Cello Suite Part II (2015) [8:23]
Jo Shapcott Settings: ‘Watching Medusa’ (2002) [5:50]
Fantasia Forty-something for quartet (2010) [4:28]

Clarinet Quintet ‘Sea-change’ (2016) [28:16]
String Quartet No.2 ‘For Elliot’ (1999) [9:43]
Jo Shapcott Settings: ‘Elephant Woman’ (2002) [2:23]
Jo Shapcott Settings: ‘Pig’ (2002) [2:03]
Cello Suite Part III (2015) [9:28]
String Quartet No.4 ‘Sky-burial’ (2005) [27:17]



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