Oft-overlooked Modern British Works receive a Rare Outing from the BBCNOW

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Great Brits 2: Mats Bergström (electric guitar), Pete Wilson (bass guitar), Steve Barnard (drum kit), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Edwin Outwater (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 03.02.2017 (PCG)

Steve Martland – Crossing the Border (1991)
Graham Fitkin – Intimate Curve (2015)
David Bedford – Star’s End (1974)

When I was a young composer I was frequently enjoined to resist the temptation to provide any detailed exegesis or explanation for the music I was writing, which it was contended should be capable of standing on its own feet without the need for such ‘props’. This argument presumably derived from Stravinsky’s patently false insistence that music could of itself have no meaning outside the notes themselves. I disagreed with that advice then, and I still do. In the first place, forcing composers to confront the construction and the meaning of their own music helps them to concentrate on such matters in a manner which they might well otherwise avoid. In the second place, and even more importantly, it assists composers in their task of communicating with their audiences; and if composers are not seeking to communicate with listeners one wonders what they are doing in the business of composition at all.

These preliminary ruminations are prompted by the fact that the programme notes for this enterprising concert of modern British music were all supplied by the composers themselves, or their estates. And yet, in their different ways, none of them succeeded in adding much enlightenment. To do him justice, the late Steve Martland (1954-2013) said as much at the outset: “Music,” he stated, “does not easily lend itself to verbal description. However, a vague and general outline of the compositional aims of this piece is worth a shot if it’s of interest or help to the listener.” He then proceeded to give some quite technical descriptions of the layout for the string orchestra and the musical construction itself. By outlining the intellectual rigour of the canonic procedures employed, these summaries unfortunately drew attention to them in a way that served to emphasise the exact imitations of material that passed from one body of strings to another, giving the strong impression that they had simply been “cut-and-pasted” on a computer. And that would not be a fair conclusion. As the music progressed it gained a sense of onward propulsion and increasing excitement that progressively gripped the ear, like a Vivaldi concerto that was gradually getting out of hand. The baroque overtones were heightened in this performance by the fact that the string players (except of course the cellos) were standing throughout – a feat of stamina, quite apart from the strenuous nature of much of the elaborately-figured writing and contrapuntally organised textures, which commanded respect in its own right. The conductor Edwin Outwater did not have much to do apart from ensuring a steady and unwavering beat throughout the span of twenty-five minutes, but he also managed to generate plenty of excitement and passion as the music continued on its relentless way. The end, simply stopping in mid-air in the manner of so many minimalist scores, came as quite a shock – one felt that Martland and the players could have carried on for another ten minutes or more without turning a hair. There were also a few quieter passages to interrupt the progress of a predominantly loud score, rather like Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia heard in juxtaposition with Orff’s Carmina Burana, with some sections very closely imitating the latter.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Sir Thomas Beecham once famously remarked, “in upwards of fifty years of concert-giving before the public, it has seldom been my good fortune to find the programme correctly printed. Tonight is no exception to the rule, and therefore, with your kind permission, we will now play you the piece which you think you have just heard.” That was exactly the situation which confronted Edwin Outwater in the context of this concert, but the re-ordering of items (presumably intended to abbreviate the length of time it would have taken to re-set the stage) also had its positive merits if only because the string orchestra deployed by Martland would have had its impact considerably reduced if it has followed the exuberant use of the full romantic orchestra in Graham Fitkin’s Intimate Curve, a far from intimate piece of writing. Fitkin (b.1963) explained in his programme note that he had been asked to write a ‘concerto for orchestra’ highlighting individual sections before combining them into a whole, and he achieved this by the use of a sort of eccentric passacaglia technique over which various contrasted variations were presented. He achieved miracles of imaginative scoring along the way – I particularly enjoyed one section where flutes and clarinets in unison appeared to imitate the sounds of an ondes martenot or other such electronic instrument – and the rumbustious closing pages always seemed to find something new to say. The chortling of the bass clarinet like a persistent bullfrog raised a smile in a score which had plenty of humour; and the manner in which the pseudo-passacaglia theme emerged as a high-soaring lyrical line on the violins was most effective too. The audience was highly enthusiastic, and cheered the composer (who was in the audience) with every justification.

After the interval the temperature unfortunately dropped violently with the performance of David Bedford’s Star’s End, a work now over forty years old which has not worn well with the passing of the years. Mind you, the programme note, beginning with an irrelevant quotation from Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation in which the phrase “star’s end” appears, and continuing with a long and rambling rumination on the subject of entropy, provided little clue as to the composer’s intentions in writing what was presumably intended to be a programmatic score. It was apparently originally designed as a concerto for the composer’s friend Mike Oldfield, playing two electric guitars; here the soloist duties were parcelled out between two players, of whom Mats Bergström had surprisingly little to do and Pete Wilson hardly seemed over-stretched. There were two places in the opening section when the orchestra settled on to a series of repeated patterns which seemed to invite improvisations from the guitars, and indeed at these points Edwin Outwater appeared to be looking expectantly at his soloists before taking up the pulse again after a pause. This was, however, not a mistake; the recording of the work by Vernon Handley with Mike Oldfield as soloist has exactly the same sort of hiatus, as if something expected has failed to materialise. Presumably therefore this is what the composer wanted, but it sounds weird all the same and looked even odder in this performance. More troublesome is the fact that the two sections of the score (divided by a pause where original listeners would have expected to get up and turn the LP over) seemed to traverse the same or very similar material without any sense of contrast, except a slightly greater sense of onward momentum in the second movement where a fragmentary brass chorale from the first half assumed greater prominence.

Otherwise a great deal of the music was comprised of textural passages where specified instruments in the orchestra were directed to deliver set patterns of notes in free rhythm and at their own individual speed. This aleatoric technique, much in vogue in avant garde circles during the 1960s and 1970s, has its own drawbacks. Although there is a greater sense of harmonic complexity and tension deriving from the overlapping figurations, there is a commensurate loss of sheer power as the orchestral instruments no longer reinforce each other in the traditional manner. This is not such a problem in chamber music, but becomes serious in large scores like Star’s End, where the inability to rise in graduated terms to a climax seriously detracts from the programmatic intention of the music itself. Steve Barnard, swapping his seat as principal timpanist of the orchestra for a drum kit, managed to get quite a variety of sound from his basically limited spectrum; but since there were no other percussion instruments one felt the lack of tuned marimbas and vibraphones which might have been anticipated in a piece which presumably had the intention of conjuring up images of outer space. The presence of so much aleatoric music meant that the sound of the music was sometimes quite different from that on the Handley LP; but these differences, and the superb playing of the orchestra under the energetic Outwater (who was however reduced at times to simply giving cues for various improvisations) hardly seemed justification for resurrecting the work. There are quite a few better scores by Bedford which could have been substituted, such as his first symphony, which seems to have had a rather dismissive critical response but has much more sheer content and profile.

This was therefore a somewhat disappointing conclusion to a pair of interesting concerts which had brought before us some marvellous and nowadays rather neglected scores – the performance of Howard Skempton’s Lento in the first concert especially welcome – but nonetheless the marvellous playing by the BBC NOW amply compensated for the occasional misfires. Might we perhaps hope for a further series of concerts in the same vein for next season? There are plenty more wonderful scores out there which thoroughly deserve to be resurrected.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

6 thoughts on “Oft-overlooked Modern British Works receive a Rare Outing from the BBCNOW”

  1. I was at this concert and, while the first half was enjoyable, David Bedford’s “Star’s End” was the stand-out piece for me. There was great variety and contrast within its 45 minutes: huge orchestral outbursts and delicate chamber-like murmurings, strictly notated counterpoint and rhythmically free passages, fierce dissonance and tender lyricism. The orchestration was masterly with the three rock instruments adding an extra layer of beguiling sound. “Star’s End” has not been heard in public since it appeared on LP in 1974; let’s hope some enterprising record company releases the BBC NOW’s exhilirating performance on CD, ideally coupled with more music by David Bedford. On this evidence, he is a composer ripe for reappraisal.

  2. I am pleased that Rob Harries enjoyed the score of David Bedford’s Star’s End more than I did, although for reasons that I hope I made clear I found the work had not ‘worn well’ over the years. But I agree with him that the music of Bedford deserves to be re-evaluated, and I did suggest that his First Symphony would be a good place to start. He was certainly highly regarded during the 1960s and 1970s – he was commissioned, for example, to write a work for Peter Pears – and I suspect that the reaction of later critics may well have been coloured by a measure of disdain for his work in providing orchestral arrangements of popular Mike Oldfield scores such as Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge. The former has long been available on disc, but the latter never seems to have been recorded and I remember it as being the more effective of the two.

  3. >> “Although there is a greater sense of harmonic complexity and tension deriving from the overlapping figurations, there is a commensurate loss of sheer power as the orchestral instruments no longer reinforce each other in the traditional manner…the inability to rise in graduated terms to a climax seriously detracts from the programmatic intention of the music itself”

    Achieving “sheer power” and “graduated terms to a climax” surely depends on how the composer configures the overlapping figurations? The inventor of the technique Alan Hovhaness (and not Lutoslawski or Ligeti as musicologists seem to regurgitate) gets a lot of power and climaxes out of his orchestral players in his similarly cosmic-themed Symphony No.19, as well as in earlier works from the ’50 and ’60s.

    The slow pace of the Bedford’s deliberately immersive piece suggests to me the huge time period over which the lifespan of a star occurs – effecivetly beyond the comprehension of a fleeting species like ours? Bedford’s Symphony No.1 though more active is far less modernist and distinctive, but presumably more in line with Mr. Corfield Godfrey’s musical preferences?

  4. It is always hard to respond to comments over seven months after a concert performance (and the recording on iPlayer will long have disappeared, of course) but my memory of the score remains largely unaltered. I don’t think it is simply a matter of finding Bedford’s First Symphony “less modernist and distinctive”, more than the development of the material is more coherently organised. The comment that the use of orchestral figuration in this manner originated with Hovhaness rather than Lutoslawski or Ligeti is of course correct (although it has even older origins in Wagner and the impressionists) but Hovhaness tends to use these ‘overlappings’ as a background for more conventionally stated themes and the climaxes in the music arise from these in a Sibelian manner. My main concern with the Bedford work was that these climaxes simply failed to materialise at all, but instead reverted to a new series of ostinato patterns without successfully driving the elaborations home. That, I would suggest, is a matter of factual observation rather than simply “musical preference”. I would observe that Hovhaness’s cosmically inspired pieces do achieve the results for which Bedford seems to strive. Perhaps the composer’s programme note could have been more specific about the effect he was seeking to achieve.

    I must however thank the pseudonymous correspondent for giving me something to consider, and well-considered feedback is always welcome even at such an interval after the event. And I agree with both correspondents here that the music of Bedford is ripe for re-appraisal.

  5. PCG thanks for your reply. After many years of looking forward to an alternate reading of ‘Star’s End’ to the Handley one, and knowing full well how even faithfully-executed aleatoric results can still vary hugely, I can’t believe I actually missed this broadcast …and the iPlayer time limited availablity! Perhaps some naughty Bedford enthusiast will upload to YouTube at some point.

    I suspect Bedford was more likely aware of European ad libitum practices than of Hovhaness’s, although you never know given that the AH Symphony #19 was probably released in the early ’70s.



Leave a Comment