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Brian FERNEYHOUGH (b.1943)
Liber Scintillarum [19:02]
Plötzlichkeit [22:22]
Missa Brevis [13:37]
La terre est un homme [13:04]
ensemble recherche (Liber)
Olivia Robinson (soprano), Jennifer Adams-Barbaro (soprano), Cherith Millburn-Fryer (alto), BBC SO/Martyn Brabbins (Plötzlichkeit)
EXAUDI/James Weeks (Missa)
BBC SO/Martyn Brabbins (La terre)
rec. 2006-12, Barbican, London (La terre, Plötzlichkeit); Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt, Germany (Liber); Orford Church, Suffolk, UK (Missa)
NMC D231 [68:05]

There are numerous examples of works receiving their premieres and the result is a disaster. Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Rachmaninov’s First Symphony are two of the most celebrated. Tippett’s Second Symphony had a notorious premiere on 8th February 1958 under the BBCSO and Sir Adrian Boult when the entire first movement collapsed and had to be restarted. Brian Ferneyhough’s La terre est un homme, which received its world premiere in Glasgow under the Scottish National Orchestra and Elgar Howarth on 20th September 1979, as part of the Fourth Music Nova, has achieved some notoriety. Musicians were claimed to have defaced their scores, and it has even been suggested that the performance was deliberately sabotaged so bitterly did the SNO dislike the music. This, and the work’s second, scandalously received performance under Claudio Abbado, are almost certainly the reason Ferneyhough didn’t write large-scale orchestral music for decades.

There is a context in which this Glasgow performance took place which might explain some of the problems. The SNO was, at the time, financially stretched; rehearsals for it – of a work which is hugely complex and technically astonishingly demanding – were clearly insufficient, especially since the SNO were also preparing for the world premieres of Holloway’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, Wilson’s Third Symphony and the UK premiere of Scherchen-Hsaio’s L’invitation au voyage – all of which were to be performed over just two concerts. The suggestion that Bute Hall, where the work was played, was acoustically wrong for the piece has also been levelled against Ferneyhough’s score. When Claudio Abbado came to give the London premiere of La terre est un homme, in his inaugural LSO concert, acoustics were less of a problem – even if the London Symphony Orchestra clearly had technical difficulties playing the music, too. It’s rarely been played in the UK since, if at all – even at major contemporary music festivals such as Huddersfield.

Certainly, no major symphony orchestra in the world today is better equipped to play La terre than the BBCSO and the performance here is outstanding. For many years, especially at university, my only access to La terre was from a tape recording done from a radio broadcast of Abbado’s LSO performance (I came to know Ferneyhough’s Funérailles and Boulez’s Livres pour cordes, in one of its provisional orchestral incarnations, from the same tape); I’m not sure the apparent errors in La terre were that immediately obvious at the time – this is a score that can seem very dense with the strings, especially, playing close to fifty separate lines of music. Only over time, has the performance’s flaws become a distinctive feature of it, and that has largely been because of the very few times I’ve heard it in concert, notably in Germany, and the miracle of the orchestration has been welded to microscopic preparation.

La terre had not been Ferneyhough’s first foray into large scale orchestration – Epicycle (1967-68), Firecycle Beta (1969-1971) and Transit (1974) predate La terre by several years. Firecycle certainly reveals a progressive change in Ferneyhough’s writing for orchestral music during the beginning of the 1970s. Embracing Stockhausen, especially the Stockhausen of Grüppen, the piece requires two orchestras, multiple conductors and the textures are noticeably different from his earliest works. La terre is different still, symptomatic of a composer experimenting with musical form and on the cusp of stretching the possibilities of conventional notation and very complex ideas of colour and sound. In many ways, La terre is a musical conundrum, a contradiction: its length - no more than fifteen minutes - and the fact that its fundamental musical influence stems from a Renaissance motet by Tallis belies its monumental effect. Hearing this work, you become consciously aware of how kinetic the smallest unit of music can become; how microscopic details played together become a landscape of motion and inexorable force. If it wasn’t really apparent when hearing La terre that its inspiration comes from the strokes of an artist’s brush (it is after all seeping with the surrealism of Roberto Matta’s painting) you only have to look at the score itself (and then listen to the music): its jagged notation, pillars of bars and thick black-ink, as if drawn with tentacles, explicitly courts the idea that the aesthetics of music and art are inextricably interrelated.

The BBC performance itself, expertly conducted by Martyn Brabbins, is luminous in the extreme; it’s almost like looking at a painting that has had centuries of varnish removed to reveal the original work. Unlike any performance I can recall, the BBC Symphony Orchestra manage to balance the score’s incendiary difficulties with something bordering on coherence. The work’s notorious rhythms finally make sense; part of the problem with the Abbado performance, especially on subsequent re-hearings, was that the middle section of the work – with its complicated string and woodwind layers - became glutinous; the marvel of the BBC performance is that they have become distinguishable. Given its short span it’s amazing how monolithic a great performance of it can be; despite its compact size, it manages to subvert time into almost unimaginable destructive force – something that another British composer, Harrison Birtwistle, was to do many years later in Earth Dances.

The BBC’s performance of Plötzlichkeit (“suddenness”) is equally revelatory. Written in 2005 - 2006, it was Ferneyhough’s first major large-scale orchestral work since La terre est un homme. It received two premieres – an incomplete one at the Munich Biennale (April 2008) and a complete performance in October 2008 at the Donaueschinger Musiktage – both with the Ensemble Modern, for whom the piece was written. Like much of Ferneyhough’s work, Plötzlichkeit takes as its theme time – though where in a work like La terre it’s predominantly motion, Plötzlichkeit takes as its core Walter Benjamin’s concept of “discontinuous history”, or time perpetually subverted into a form of stasis. As a composition, it’s deeply fragmented, rather like it’s composed of multiple grains of sand in an egg timer that need to be welded together in real time to make sense of it. Each fragment has a different time structure, a different rhythm, a different orchestral timbre. Like Stockhausen’s Cosmic Pulses Plötzlichkeit shares a peculiar sense of anti-momentum – slowing down towards the middle of the work, only to pick up speed again. There is a real sense of power and depth to the BBC Symphony’s performance here – the brass, especially, make much of Ferneyhough’s heavy bar line writing saturating this score with incredible contrast. There’s the marvellous spectral sound of glissandi on soprano trombones one moment, the lava of weightier brass burning its way through the orchestra the other. Harps are tremulous. The three voices are like Odyssian sirens cutting through the palate of brilliant orchestral colour.

The two choral pieces on this disc – from bookends of Ferneyhough’s career – are in many ways more easily approachable. Liber Scintillarum (2012), like so much of Ferneyhough’s work, relies on fragments to unify its form. If its proportions return to the decades when this composer was writing on a scale that was defined by single instruments and the sonorities of leaner orchestration, the exacting complexities of the music remain. Missa Brevis (1966-1969) is almost indelibly spiritual – shifting between multiple voices to a single soprano. Both performances here are very fine.

The selling points of this remarkable disc are clearly the two live performances of La terre est un homme and Plötzlichkeit. Recordings of Ferneyhough’s major orchestral works are thin on the ground – the London Sinfonietta LP of Transit, with Elgar Howarth, has not, I think, ever made it to CD. It’s likely to be many years before these BBC recordings are equalled – let alone surpassed. A clear record of the year, I think.

Marc Bridle



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