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Brian FERNEYHOUGH (b. 1943)
Liber Scintillarum (2012) [19:02]
Plötzlichkelt (2006) [22:22]
Missa Brevis (1969) [13:12]
La Terre est un Homme (1979) [13:04]
ensemble recherche
Olivia Robinson, Jennifer Adams-Barbaro (sopranos)
Cherith Millburn-Fryer (alto)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
EXAUDI/James Weeks
rec. 2006-2012, Barbican, London (La terre, Plötzlichkeit); Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt, Germany (Liber); Orford Church, Suffolk, UK (Missa)
NMC D231 [68:05]

This new release from the British contemporary composers' label NMC is timed to coincide with the 75th birthday of Brian Ferneyhough. These recordings, taken from three live concerts, were taped between 2006 and 2012. The works encompass nearly half a century of the composer's creative output. The early Missa Brevis of 1969 and Liber Scintillarum of 2012, the latter written especially for the ensemble recherche, bookend two works for large resources - the challenging La Terre est un Homme (1979), and the powerful Plötzlichkelt (2006). All are BBC recordings except for Liber Scintillarum, sourced from a Darmstadt Summer Course concert in July 2012.

Liber scintillarum is the most recent work, written especially for the ensemble recherche, who perform it here. It was premiered at Darmstadt in 2012. In common with all Ferneyhough's scores, the work is complex and the technical challenges for the players formidable. The composer draws his inspiration from a 700 AD manuscript, an assemblage of religious texts compiled by a monk at the ancient abbey of Ligugé. The title means 'Book of Sparks'. The manuscript’s assembled extracts translate directly into the structure of the work - a succession of layers or fragments. Intricate rhythms and minute pitches all underpin a richly embroidered labyrinth. There's a lovely section midway for string trio, offering some soothing contrast. The ensemble recherche perform with compelling authority and consummate skill.

The a capella Missa Brevis is the earliest work on the disc. Composed in 1969, its brevity is due, in part, to there being no Credo. It's scored for twelve voices arranged into three vocal quartets. In the Kyrie, the Greek consonants emerge as fragmented shards, which pierce and lance. I found the Gloria splintered and pungent, where spoken word alternates with whispered narration. The work places considerable demands on the singers, and Exaudi acquit themselves admirably with precision of ensemble and rhythmic exactitude.

Large orchestral forces are drafted in for Plötzlichkelt (Suddenness) of 2006. Its colourful orchestration, augmented by a panoply of percussion effects, makes a stunning impact. Ferneyhough weaves into the fabric three female voices singing, for the most part, wordless chords, which augment the sonorities with an ethereal and crepuscular presence. The fragmentary nature of the narrative, punctuated by silences, has an insistent potency.

To state that La Terre est un Homme (1979) packs a punch is something of an understatement. Scored for eighty-eight players, each has their moment of soloistic glory. The adjectives I would use to describe its tortuous textures are dense, terrifying and apocalyptic. Proof of its complexity and challenging scoring is the fact that after the second performance in the Royal Festival Hall by the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado, his first concert as Principal Conductor, the score lay dormant until it was revived by the BBC and Martyn Brabbins in February 2011. The work takes it cue from a 1942 painting by the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta. It portrays a desert landscape, recalling a dream the composer had. Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra deliver a performance of corruscating brilliance. I'm blown over.

There's no denying that these scores make a dramatic impact and challenge the listener to the hilt. For me they've been a revelation. All are gripping performances in superb sound. Text and English translation of the Missa Brevis is included. Paul Griffiths’ well-written notes supply all the necessary background.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Marc Bridle (Recording of the Month)



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