New Music at Cheltenham 2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Goehr, Bridge, Brahms: Nash Ensemble, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 5.7.2012

Mozart: Piano Quartet No 1
Alexander Goehr: Largo Siciliano (premiere)
Frank Bridge: Phantasy Piano Quartet
Brahms: Trio in E flat, Op 40

Wood, Harvey, Supponen, Bingham, Swayne, Rautavaara, Tavener: BBC Singers, Nancy Ruffer (flute), Scott Lygate (clarinet), Oliver Lowe (percussion), David Hill (conductor), Cheltenham College Chapel, 5.7.2012 .(RJ)

Hugh Wood: From the Pisan Cantos LXXXI, Op 56 (2012) (premiere)
Jonathan Harvey: Marahi
Lauri Supponen: The Dordrecht Humaphone (premiere)
Judith Bingham: London Haiku (premiere)
Giles Swayne: Magnificat 1 (1982)
Einojuhani Rautavaara: Missa a capella (2011) (premiere)
John Tavener: Unto the End of the World (2007) (premiere)

Visitors to this year’s Cheltenham received a baptism by fire, as it were, with half a dozen premieres scheduled for the second day – each one very distinctive.

Leading the charge was the Largo Siciliano, a trio for violin, horn and piano by Alexander Goehr, 80 this year. Goehr believes that “in music, as in all other fields of human activity, the way to the new is not necessarily via the new”, and he clearly relishes the creative tension involved in creating a new piece using a historical model, such as this slow, stately dance beloved of Baroque composers. “I wanted to set ideas against strict dance forms using the same meter and tempo all the way through,” he explained in his introduction to the work, but noted that there were problems of balance between the violin and horn.

Although entitled a Siciliano, nobody could have mistaken this work for a movement by Bach or Vivaldi, even though in an intense ornamented solo passage for violin near the start, played with true virtuosity by Marianne Thorsen, one could detect echoes of the Baroque. There were several interesting episodes: mellow horn playing above a pizzicato violin accompaniment, a dialogue between the two instruments with a brusque intervention from the piano, for instance. Yet one felt that the violin was very much the senior partner in this ensemble, notwithstanding the excellent playing of Ian Brown (piano) and Richard Watkins (horn). The balance of forces seemed more evenly spread in the Brahms trio played later in the recital. Nevertheless, the Largo Siciliano had much to commend it being full of ideas and inventions; the composer’s fear that it might prove boring was unfounded.

There was plenty more to savour in The Nash Enemble’s morning recital, notably Mozart’s Piano Quartet No 1, dark and intense at first and becoming much sunnier as the work progressed, and Frank Bridge’s single movement Phantasie, but I have more premieres to fit in including From the Pisan Cantos LXXXI, Op 56 by Hugh Wood, an exact contemporary of Alexander Goehr. This was the opening work of a concert by the BBC Singers and is a setting of Ezra Pound poem dealing with respect for tradition and the relationship between mankind and the natural world. “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage,” the poet reminds us and the piece resonates with the anguished plea “Pull down thy vanity.” The four contrasting sections seemed perfectly attuned to Pound’s message.

Finnish composer Lauri Supponen is over half a century younger than both Wood and Goehr and after winning the Royal Philhamonic Society’s Composition Prize last year (2011) was awarded a Susan Bradshaw Composer’s Fund Commission to write The Dordrecht Humaphone for the Cheltenham Festival. This is an engagingly different work, a kind of mini-opera for two old codgers and a chorus. The codgers, Trube and Claucus, are attempting to tune the vocal chords of a huge instrument which is doomed for oblivion once they are no longer around to attend to it. Edward Goater and Edward Price sang their roles with great zest. With its wit, whimsy and originality this work should go a long way towards establishing Mr Supponen’s reputation. (Incidentally, I’m not sure whether humaphones actually exist or whether this is an example of Finnish humour. If we have readers in Dordrecht in the Netherlands, please enlighten us.)

One of the themes of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival is exploration, which gave Judith Bingham the idea of seeing how foreigners (explorers from abroad) react to Britain. She came across reports written by members of the first Japanese trade delegation to London in the 1870s and extracted short snippets which she turned into haiku and tanka – Japanese poetry forms which use only 5 and 7 syllable lines. Some of the comments in her London Haiku sound quaint, such as “The ladies demand inordinate respect and have the air of our imperial princesses”, while there are others which treat the darker side of existence – stress, crime, the rush hour, suicide and drugs. (Some of the comments are perhaps not so bizarre?). The combination of flute, clarinet and all manner of percussion (Western and Japanese – ably played by Oliver Lowe) gave the work a distinctly oriental feel and offered a surprising contrast to the other works.

There was a second Finn represented in this concert – veteran composer Einojuhani Rautavaari whose Missa a capella (2011) was receiving its UK premiere. The mass impressed with its simplicity, though, of course, simplicity is not always easy to achieve. His overriding concern appears to have been to avoid monotony and this he achieved through frequent variation of texture and rhythm and alternating between solo voices and the choir. I was particularly struck by the opening Kyrie with the main choir singing above the muffled carillon of a sub-choir. There was relatively little ornamentation and the words came over clearly. Giles Swayne’s Magnificat 1 (1982) was at the other end of the spectrum; the words may have been incomprehensible – not the BBC Singers’ fault – but the noise was joyful.

John Tavener’s Unto the End of the World was also receiving its premiere – surprising, since it was composed five years ago. In it the Kali Yuga (Dark Age) of Hindu cosmology is confronted with two of Christ’s sayings to help believers face up to troubled times. This was vintage Tavener making use of intrumental accompaniment, especially percussion, to create a ritualistic, mystic, almost hypnotic mood. Jonathan Harvey also draws on Indian, as well as Christian, texts for his Marahi which also featured in this wide-ranging concert, even using bleats, moos, brays and miaows from the animal world.

This full-length concert was enough to challenge the most versatile of choirs, but the breathtakingly brilliant BBC Singers under David Hill’s wise and remarkable direction came through it all with flying colours.

Incidentally, the recital by the Nash Ensemble will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Sunday July 8 at 3pm BST and most of the BBC Singers’ concert (but not the Missa a capella) can be heard on Saturday July 21st in the Hear and Now programme also on Radio 3.

Roger Jones