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Kenneth HESKETH (b. 1968)
Knotted Tongues (2012 rev. 2014) [14:56]
Of Time and Disillusionment (2016) [20:41]
In Ictu Oculi – Three Meditations (2017) [19:04]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Christoph-Mathias Mueller
Rec. 19-20 September 2017, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales

This recording has generated quite a bit of interest and acclaim since it was released, and with his Horae (pro Clara) under his belt and more CDs due out next year, it would seem that Kenneth Hesketh’s music is gaining a deservedly higher profile in the record catalogues.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales used to be my home orchestra way back when it was the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra. It was always good, but the remarkable quality of sound in these performances certainly gives the impression of a world-class orchestra at the top of its game.

Knotted Tongues was a commission from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. It “forms a link in the continuation of a latent cycle of works that contemplates the idea of the ‘unreliable machine’... the idea that the body is no more than a wonderfully complex machine… [but] likely to malfunction, fracture and decay...”

Of Time and Disillusionment also has a ‘machine’ connection, in this case that of “various aspects of clockwork” in two of its five movements, “as well as the use of rhythmic gestures and cycles that are regularly found in my other works. However, the fragility with which they are often presented here is more grotesquely contrasted with a gradual bellicosity that evolves as the work progresses.”

In Ictu Oculi - Three Meditations was originally written for wind ensemble, the orchestral version heard here was made specifically for this recording. It forms “part of a current cycle of works that have the idea of Memento Mori, or Vanitas and memorial, at their centre, [in this case] an extended meditation upon the transience of time and that all things come to an end.”

I’ve raced through the repertoire somewhat, but this is one of those recordings that seems to require comment as a whole rather than in terms of microscopic detail. A little like the works of Harrison Birtwistle there is a sense of continuity here; of wider contexts and broader horizons rather than of self-containment. Fans of Birtwistle should certainly become acquainted with these pieces. Hesketh’s idiom is however lighter of touch and less abrasive than that of his elder colleague: his uncompromisingly detailed and effective orchestration creating a balance in favour of luminosity over darkness. There is no lack of dark/light drama however. Knotted Tongues in particular has the feel of an operatic backdrop upon which a psychologically intense libretto could be overlaid. Hesketh is unsentimental, and even where a more overt beauty might be anticipated his expressiveness is in subtle lines and quasi-exotic orchestral colours that hark back to Berg and the Second Viennese School rather than anything perfumed or non-European, as witnessed by Notturni per i defunti, the ‘adagio’ central movement in Of Time and Disillusionment. The wind band origins of In Ictu Oculi can be heard in its saxophones and other significant set-piece moments for winds, but the strings do more than just add sheen, and the whole makes for an elaborately conceived and refined canvas onto which concepts of the fragility of existence is taken through numerous genuinely thought-provoking scenes.

My only complaint about the presentation for this release is the designer’s silly abandonment of capital letters on the cover. Is this even still a thing? If so, it shouldn’t be.

The symphony orchestra as a musical instrument proves itself vibrantly relevant in this excellent recording, and it certainly sounds as if its musicians relished getting their collective teeth into these remarkable scores. If you want to hear some of the best of what is around these days from one of your very own poets in sound, then this is exactly the kind of release that makes such an excursion very easy indeed.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Richard Hanlon (Recommended)


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