Demented Passacaglia, Kaleidoscopic Control: Rich Diversity on display in an Evening dedicated to Contemporary British Composers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Great Brits 1 – David Sawer, Howard Skempton, Michael Nyman, Charlie Barber & Gavin Bryars: Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Clark Rundell (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 13.1.2017. (PCG)

David SawerThe Greatest Happiness Principle
Howard SkemptonLento
Michael Nyman – Harpsichord Concerto
Charlie BarberShut Up and Dance
Gavin BryarsJesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

This was a high-profile evening concert featuring the work of five contemporary British composers, four of whom were present in the hall to receive the applause of the audience. But the number of listeners was disappointingly small (there have been larger numbers of spectators for BBC NOW afternoon concerts during the last year), and the concert was recorded by the BBC for future broadcast rather than being relayed live – a date for transmission has yet to be fixed as of the time of writing. That is a great shame, since the programme was surprisingly diverse in style, demonstrating the wide range of British music being written at the end of the last century, and all the more rewarding for that.

Back in May of last year, reviewing a performance of Vasks’s Sala at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival for this site, I remarked in passing on the comparative and regrettable neglect that had overtaken Howard Skempton’s Lento since its first performance in 1990. It was a great pleasure to encounter once again a score that still retains its power to move the listener every bit as much as it did a quarter of a century ago. Moreover, Clark Rundell’s interpretation was remarkably different from that of the pioneering Mark Wigglesworth, moving ahead more purposely and with greater rhythmic pointing of the phrases. At first I found this somewhat disconcerting, threatening to disturb the calm reflective surface of the music; then after a while, I found the increased sense of structural cohesion produced results every bit as convincing. And the poised and warm performance of the orchestral strings was even more emotionally engaging. In a brief conversation with the composer (sitting in the row in front of me), Skempton revealed that he had been inspired in part by the divided violin writing in Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela; in this performance the chill of that miniature masterpiece was partly overwritten by an atmosphere of almost Delian warmth. The music itself seemed that it could go on for all eternity (and would be just as beautiful if it did) which meant that its abrupt termination was even more unwelcome than ever. This performance shed an unexpected new light on a work which still remains monumentally impressive.

It had been preceded by a performance of David Sawers’s The Greatest Happiness Principle (1997), a deceptively cheerful title for a work which derives its inspiration from Jeremy Bentham’s coldly inhuman proposals for the treatment of prisoners. There is a kaleidoscopic control of rhythm and colour, but the music itself was persistently one-dimensional, with precious little harmonic shading or counterpoint at any one time. This was perhaps intended to represent and reflect the nature of Bentham’s ‘panopticon’ but I found myself longing in places for a great sense of emotional depth and involvement. Indeed for much of the course of the work there was a nagging feeling that the music could have been played just as effectively by a computer, and it was only in the final stages – where at once point the conductor lays down his baton and allows the orchestra to produce a real human reaction (carefully planned to produce the required effect) – that the work really seemed to connect.

This problem of one-dimensionality was however much more severe in Michael Nyman’s Harpsichord Concerto from 1995, with the passages scored for a reduced number of strings in parallel octaves almost comical in their bare effect during the first orchestral tutti. The harpsichord part, originally written for Elisabeth Chojnacka and played manfully here by Mahan Esfahani, seemed to be reduced for much of the time almost to a chugging accompaniment role in a style familiar from much of Nyman’s other music. Then, at one point, the soloist broke out into a lengthy cadenza over a continual series of repeated harpsichord notes, which seemed to hanker after a percussive Bartókian piano rather than a harpsichord at all. For much of the time, despite the heavily reduced string forces, the instrument persistently teetered on the borders of inaudibility, which leads one to suspect that the work would seem more engaging with the assistance of a microphone (this will doubtless mean that the broadcast will produce a very different result). At the end, however, I felt the irrational desire to go and stroke the harpsichord, give it a stiff whiskey and tell it to lie down in a darkened room, with the assurance that it would feel better the following morning.

After the interval, with the harpsichord relegated to the side of the stage, we heard Charlie Barber’s Shut Up and Dance (1994), which takes its title from the name of a New York nightclub rather than any more aggressive intention. The score had boldly juxtaposed elements, veering abruptly and disconcertingly from Latin America via Africa to Indonesia and back again. (At one point I distinctly heard the trombones declaim the phrase “a favour now for every fool” from Britten’s Gloriana but I don’t think it had any significance.) Rundell’s innate feeling for jazz rubato left a very favourable impression of an enjoyable score which didn’t plumb any great emotional depths, and didn’t see the need to.

Gavin Bryars’s Jesus’ Blood (1971) is, on the other hand, a score all about emotional depths. The recorded voice of the old tramp on the tape loop which repeats itself throughout like a kind of demented passacaglia is rich in humanity and dignity, and the composer in his spoken introduction informed us that he had been told by Paul Gambaccini (at the time when the CD recording of the work was top of the charts on Classic FM, and indeed worldwide) that the enormous amount of public response was divided almost equally between those who hated the work and those who loved it. I have no hesitation in placing myself in the second camp, even though in this live performance I did on occasion find my attention wandering as one slowly changing counterpoint succeeded another, only to find myself re-absorbed into the meditative trance engendered by these repetitions. At the very end, as the music receded into silence, the sudden eruption of an unmuffled cough from a member of the audience came as a violent intrusion into the mood that the music had engendered. Could the BBC perhaps consider inserting a request into their (still regrettably skimpy) programme leaflets asking members of the audience at least to cough into a handkerchief or closed hands? With luck they will be able to edit out the interruption by the time of the broadcast.

But this was a minor irritant in the course of an evening of general enjoyment where part of the music reached towards the heavens. Readers are urged to look out for the broadcast when it finally materialises; they will be most amply rewarded.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

1 thought on “Demented Passacaglia, Kaleidoscopic Control: Rich Diversity on display in an Evening dedicated to Contemporary British Composers”

  1. I was at this concert and broadly agree with Mr Godfrey’s review (although I liked David Sawer’s piece more than he did). By programming Michael Nyman’s Harpsichord Concerto after Howard Skempton’s Lento, the concert lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous. It’s only the middle of January but I’ll be surprised if I hear a worse piece of music this year than Mr Nyman’s concerto.


Leave a Comment