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Piers HELLAWELL (b. 1956)
Up By The Roots
Up by the Roots for piano trio and narrator (2106) [19.09]
Atria for cello and piano (2012) [11.35]
Ground Truthing for flutes, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2018) [14.50]
Piani, Latebre for piano (2009) [14.00]
Wild Flow for orchestra (2015) [19.35]
Fidelio Trio
Sinéad Morrisey (narrator)
Paul Watkins (cello)
Huw Watkins, William Howard (piano)
Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble/Sinéad Hayes
Ulster Orchestra/Paul Watkins
rec. 2018/19, Harty Room, Queen’s University & Ulster Hall, Belfast
DELPHIAN DCD34223 [77.14]

Back in 1998 and 2002 the ‘Metronome’ label produced two CDs of Hellawell’s Chamber works (MET 1029 and 1059) and this is Delphian’s second disc of his music the first, which I haven’t heard, was entitled ‘Airs, Water’ (DCD341140) and includes some pieces for orchestra; this new disc includes another orchestral work Wild Flow.
This large canvas proved to be Hellawell’s second proms commission (the first had been in 1999) and was especially composed for and dedicated to the Ulster Orchestra. It falls into five sections with a fascinating format. One should think of the brooding third movement, a Largamente and the longest, as its pivotal emotional core. Either side of it is a fleeting scherzo (Movt 4) and a wonderful ‘Ritmico, meccanico’ (Movt 2) in which the composer says its “Radical structure” was “an exercise in discontinuity”. Interesting then that the title of the work, ‘Wild Flow’, is actually an attempt to construct continuity and coherence between five quite dissimilar pieces. The book-ended movements are rather dismissed by the composer as “a curtain raiser and a finale” but they also very impulsive and quirky and animated and highlighted by bell sounds. This is a terrific piece and worthy of many re-hearings.

Ground Truthing is a very recent piece and what might immediately strike you is that the movements grow from almost two minutes, then five and a half and then seven and a half and he explains that the second and third movements use and develop the material from the short opening one. He likens this to viewing a wall from a distance and then closer, seeing the details in focus. I was especially taken with the close of the work as it fades away with some extraordinarily beautiful, wispy sounds. This movement is marked ‘Ruvido’ meaning rough or irregular and this is how it runs for much of its earlier course with its erratic rhythms. How the composer reached the title however I’m not sure.

You can see Atria for cello and piano as a series of three cells linked by two short tunnels which you might walk through in some ancient burial chamber. The first cell is the shortest, the middle one twice its length and the last a third longer again. Such an exquisite and clear form - and a very beautiful piece as well although intricately elaborate in the counterpoint between the players. A great climax is achieved a minute before its closure before fading into darkness.

Piani, Latebre is also interestingly formulated. The title means ‘layers-hiding places’ and is in the four sections. They can be played in any order except for the very short Introduction (as in Wild Flow) two fragments from which are included in each of the remaining sections. They are given ‘romantic’ titles Étude, Impromptu and Ballade and they increase in duration. The last particularly took my attention. There is a Debussian delicacy at the start with high tremelandi and a lower line, which climbs into the highest pitches. After a minute or so it develops the opposite characteristics of strong and wide leaping textures. The opening tries to re-emerge with delicate disparate counterpoint. After that a more energetic climax is built to an enigmatic final page.

So that brings us to the main work on the disc Up by the Roots with texts by Sinèad Morrissey who recites them with a slight twang of an edgy Irish brogue. Movement 1 ‘After the bombed-out town’ is again the shortest and sets the mood that this is a work about migration (“a spectacular trespass”) and the tragedy of the poor families crossing into Europe. It opens with an almost desiccated set of sounds like the cutting of barbed wire mentioned in the text then the words are read without musical background. Slightly longer is ‘Listen - Breaking and entering’. This starts hesitantly but builds into a spiky and irritated allegro, there is less text this time but it leads without a break into the longer third part ‘What’s this muttering’. The sense of disconnectedness, the lack of roots is communicated by the almost haphazard ‘orchestration’ for the piano and strings. The music finds, as all music should, something else in the poems, which is not immediately apparent, and the suppressed anger becomes clear. At times the music ‘mickey mouse’s’ the words in a rather uncomfortable manner. So whether the piece really stands up as a success I am not really sure.

The texts are supplied and there is a very helpful ‘notes on the music’ essay by Bernard Hughes and also some more personal notes by the composer himself.

Gary Higginson

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