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Brian FERNEYHOUGH (b. 1943)
Invention (1965) [1:55]
Epigrams (1966) [8:47]
Sonata for Two Pianos (1966) [16:04]
Three Pieces (1966-1967) [18:11]
Lemma-Icon-Epigram (1981) [13:47]
Opus Contra Naturam (2000) [16:35]
Quirl (2011-2013) [11:28]
El Rey de Calabria (c. 2018) [2:39]
Ian Pace (piano)
Ben Smith (2nd piano)
rec. 2005/18
MÉTIER MSV28615 [2 CDs: 89:50]

Sometimes it is profitable to push beyond one’s comfort zone. Just before receiving this issue, I had been exploring John Ireland’s piano music. Every few years I work my way through the entire corpus, in chronological order. This album is also arranged by date, surely a good way to investigate any composer’s work. Chalk and cheese spring to mind. I understand and relate to Ireland; I struggled to make much sense of Ferneyhough. I certainly do not get his piano music, yet there is a strange alchemy at work here that just might begin to make me change my mind…

The liner notes say: “Brian Ferneyhough is widely recognized as one of today's foremost living composers. Since the mid-1970s, when he first gained widespread international recognition, his music has earned him an enviable reputation as one of the most influential creative personalities and significant musical thinkers on the contemporary scene.” None of this means that he is popular or approachable today. It was hard work to listen to ninety minutes of music lazily defined as “New Complexity”. I took one piece at a time, with a longish intermission between bouts.

The early Invention (1965) and Epigrams (1966) are didactic pieces the composer used to hone his skills. He has used formal constructs such as palindrome and variations to achieve his ends. These are sometimes quite beautiful in effect.

The Sonata for Two Pianos (1966) presents, according to the liner notes, a “continuous elaboration and transformation of the basic material, which in the case of the Sonata is presented at the outset in the form of a series of harmonic and rhythmic ‘cells’”. I guess these are not obvious without the score. The Sonata is played in one continuous movement, although this is divided into seven sections. These are varied by tempo, typically fast/slow. This clearly virtuosic work requires considerable concentration to perform. Even if it sounds as if it is a free extemporisation, I understand that every note is played as written! There is a magic about this music that I cannot put my finger on.

The Three Pieces (1966-1967) are dissimilar in their sound, yet the composer is keen to point out that there is a unifying structure here. The Lemma-Icon-Epigram apparently uses the “emblema”, an old Italian literary pattern, as its inspiration. The notes explain that this is taken “to mean an epigram which describes something so that it signifies something else”. Simple! Despite the word “epigram” in the title, this is a long sixteen-minute work. Ian Pace refers to “the challenge of this black and dense score and especially the extremely detailed rhythms”. Certainly, there is nothing here to catch the ear, yet it strikes one as a powerful work.

I could not make much sense of Opus Contra Naturam (2000). Ferneyhough writes that “this piece forms part of my opera project, built around the death of the influential German-Jewish cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin on the Spanish border in 1940”. The present extract “represents the orphic descent of Benjamin’s avatar into the Underworld, through whose portals he is welcomed – to the strains of a series of sclerotically [?] repetitive fanfares – by a Dante-esque gathering of demons and the feral shades of historical figures…” It certainly does not sound like an entertaining evening at the opera! The piece is slated to be played by a Liberace-like figure and “is to be accompanied by a silent film projection encompassing the chaotic intersection of scenes from fin-de-siècle Berlin cabaret, medieval labyrinths and images from the hyper dissimulatory environment of present-day Las Vegas”. I guess Liberace’s pianism was a touch more popular and profitable than Ferneyhough’s. There seems to be chatting going on in the background, yet no suggestion is given as to what is being said. No text is given in the liner notes. Perhaps the words do not really matter. This entire piece is characterised by “its relentless montage of highly contrasting materials with little respite in terms of density (mostly written on three packed staves)…” Surprisingly, shockingly, in the third movement a little phrase emerged, some repeated thirds, that I could remember. A peg to hang my hat on.

Quirl is a mass of complex rhythms that are repeated, changed and entangled with even more complex rhythms. More of a Whirl than a Quirl.

I did enjoy the El Rey de Calabria (The King of Calabria) composed in memory of the composer’s cat Trifolio (1988-2005). I do not get the relevance of the title. This is the most approachable piece on these two discs. It suggests that the composer may have a sense of humour. Nodding more to Schoenberg’s atonal Klavierstücke op. 33a and 33b than the frenetic music heard earlier, this is a truly moving piece of music. I wonder why it took Ferneyhough 14 years to compose this elegy after pussy’s death.

The liner notes help to understand this complex and often impenetrable music. There is a short biography of the composer, followed by surprisingly concise programme notes for each work. Despite the soubriquet “New Complexity”, these details are readable and reasonably understandable to the average reader. They are not totally submerged in technical jargon and arcane philosophical speculation. Harder to get to grips with is the long essay by Ian Pace “Absorbing and Enacting the Piano Music of Brian Ferneyhough”. It comes complete with footnotes. Here we get technical, with phrases like “fractal rhythms” and a philosophical quote from the composer himself: “A notation which specifically and programmatically deconstructs the sound into its subcomponents sensibilizes the mind towards aspects of the work which a seemingly more straightforward image would not be in a position to do.” It does not for me… There are brief details about the two pianists.

I am not sure what the cover picture of the Victor Emanuele monument at Reggio Calabria on the southern tip of Italy has to do with the case. I can only assume that it refers to the final piece, El Rey de Calabria, dedicated to the composer’s cat. That said, it is a magnificent monument, a beautiful place and a stunning photograph.

I guess that this release requires considerable application from the listener. It may be that only those who are already committed to Brian Ferneyhough’s musical project will be prepared to invest the time, money and effort. I listened to this album twice. The music did begin to grow on me, in a curious way. Sometimes it is profitable to push beyond one’s comfort zone.

John France

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