Brian Ferneyhough: Ensemble Works

ELISION; Franck Ollu; Jean Deroyer (Kairos 0013072KAI)

19 August 2010 3 stars

FerneyhoughThis is the first collection of Brian Ferneyhough's music to be issued on the Kairos label. Featuring cracking performances by Australia's ELISION ensemble, conducted by Franck Ollu and Jean Deroyer, the selection focuses on relatively recent works, most of which see the English composer tacking the concerto form.

As Richard Toop writes in his sleeve-notes, the generic focus of the concerto brings up for the listener the issue of Ferneyhough's relation to the composers of the past and to the western art music tradition – a relation that can't be anything other than fraught with a high modernist such as Ferneyhough, whose musical language seems to do its level best to avoid any easy communicability.

But perhaps as interesting here is the side of the music that doesn't relate to any tradition or genre, the side that faces onto the abyss across whose edge the music skirts. In considering Ferneyhough it might be said that in his work music is made to occur despite the act of composition as well as because of it. This tension is something he acknowledges and explores, and which provides some of the interest of his work.

Terrain, for violinist and ensemble, was one of the first works I heard by Ferneyhough. I remember at the time finding it difficult to listen to, the violence of the violin part giving an intimidating invitation to the novice listener. Encountered again after an interval of years, it's much easier to appreciate. Apart from its crystalline solo discourse (played superbly by Graeme Jennings), well balanced binary form and the weight of the ensemble (the work uses the same ensemble as Var่se's Octandre, a work Ferneyhough says decided that 'composing became my definitive goal in life'), I now see a cartoonish quality to its splayed and spliced musical effects, all seeming to bump off each other yet made incongruously congruent, like a motley band of animals all caught in the glue of some quicksand. The theory behind the music may be forbiddingly serious, but the music itself can seem comic, even ramshackle.

no time (at all), for two guitars, sees the instruments tuned a quarter tone apart. This dyadic partnership is mirrored in the fact that some of the musical material of the five movements is used twice – the whole has an arch form, with the second and fourth movements using the same material swapped from one guitar to the other, traversing the unexpectedly vast acoustic space of a quarter tone. It probably says something about the auditory character of Ferneyhough's musical language that despite no time (at all) lifting its material almost verbatim from the guitar parts of the ensemble work Les Froissements d'ailes de Gabriel (which features later on this disc), you would never notice the kinship.

Speaking of La Chute d'Icare, Toop remarks that, 'Ferneyhough is scarcely a latter-day exponent of programme music!' – before proceeding to give us a detailed programmatic description of how the work musically represents sorry Icarus's fall. (But of course, the lengthy theoretical explanations many composers lump on their works amounts to a sort of programme music too.) In any case, the work is a compelling one, featuring a solo clarinet whose opening swirling, round and round in a vortex, soon moves away into a failing trajectory, the small ensemble providing its context.

Incipits, for solo viola, 'obbligato' percussion and ensemble, is a work in the composer's words, 'consisting mostly of beginnings, in that each of the seven sections brusquely enunciates a new set of postulates, often before the preceding section has been fully worked out.' It is a little calmer than the other works on the disc but no less complex for that; indeed, the impression is given, as elsewhere in Ferneyhough's music, of the notes as obeying the logic of Brownian motion.

Ferneyhough's indebtedness to Webern can be heard on the disc's closing work, Les Froissements d'ailes de Gabriel, which is also the second scene from Ferneyhough's opera Shadowtime. Fifteen minutes long, it is composed of 124 small fragments strung together in quick sequence. Each on its own would make for a meticulously sculpted miniature, self-sufficient, a world unto itself; together, though, they flash by in a time that seems not their own – we hear them as in a montage rather than in the slow expansive time in which they 'should' exist, something that mirrors the temporal displacement of the archangel Gabriel on earth.

From beginning to end the performances from ELISION are astonishing, doing Ferneyhough great service. And the music, though at first sight forbidding, contains a certain perverse lightness that all the theoretical baggage that accompanies it – a considerable amount – can never completely weigh down.

By Liam Cagney


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