Rebecca Saunders: choler, crimson, miniata

SWR Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Hans Zender (KAI0012762)

27 August 2008 4 stars

SaundersRebecca Saunders is a young British composer born in 1967 and based in Berlin. Her studies included time with Wolfgang Rihm in Karlsruhe and with Nigel Osborne in Edinbugh. She has previously been the recipient of various awards in mainland Europe, including the Busoni Förderpreis from the Academy of Arts in Berlin and the Paul Hindemith-prize of the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival.

This new release on Kairos follows another CD of her work released on the same label a few years ago, this one featuring two piano works – choler for solo and crimson for two pianos – along with a third piece, miniata, scored for accordion, piano, choir and orchestra. All of the works are recent ones of the composer, having been written in the past four years. Silence is in the foreground throughout the CD, as an active and shaping part of the music, functioning as an intensifier of the sounded material and casting the music in a profile according to its presence.

choler, commissioned by the BBC for the Huddersfield festival in 2004, opens the disc. An attack of harsh clusters presents us a view of a sound object as it appears, birthed violently, but which in the decay of sound and its receding into memory becomes translucent in the manner of a faded image. These low and mid-range clusters, accompanied by stabbed chords in the higher register, are appended by occasional strikes to the body of the piano and the pianist reaching inside the piano lid to draw across the strings with a plectrum. For the most part though the techniques used are not extended ones. This is what might be described as 'unreformed modernism' – discordant, fractured and complex, and not aspiring towards any conventional form of beauty or appeal. The piano writing is so nuanced though that different dimensions and strata appear through the sonorities chosen, fields opening out and providing an abstract world of interest, one which perhaps wouldn't appear to the unprepared listener at first hearing. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the sculpting of Saunders' piano vocabulary. choler ends with a passage wrought in melodic shape that, although it doesn't go anywhere, by its own terms makes perfect sense, shrill notes and chords dancing in the upper register overseeing the wandering melody that goes forward a little too long, but to good effect, before vanishing.

crimson for solo piano follows directly – and a little too directly in fact. Only a few short seconds are allowed the previous track before the new one begins, a bad oversight given the silence that plays such a big part in the first piece's composition. This second work for piano is in a similar vein but with a more continuous, ebbing thread of sound flowing through the darkness, its silence. Saunders tells us in her notes that in it is contained a fusion from two separate piano solos that were to hand at the time of composition, both of them exploring a similar timbral palette. It is a palette the intention of which, she goes on, 'I can only more closely define by referring to the colour "crimson".' She refers the listener also to Molly Bloom's closing monologue from Ulysses.

In contrast to choler, this work is bright and vivid and florid, featuring more movement and vibrancy than the previous work although it utilises the same techniques of attack, resonance and decay, and the silent depressing of groups of keys to provide halos on struck notes' attack. This is another accomplished and interesting work, albeit slightly less so than the first one.

Modernist literature is also a feature of the last piece, miniata. A quotation from Beckett's late, short prose work, Company, is given in the programme note as having accompanied the composition process and guiding the work's development: 'By the voice a faint light is shed. Dark lightens while it sounds. Deepens when it ebbs. Lightens with flow back to faint full. Is whole again when it ceases.' It is telling that that language that Saunders sees as meeting with her music, and of being in communication with it, is that of the literary work, one that sees Beckett challenge and unsettle the distinction between the language of the world – or fact – and that of the imaginary – fiction. We are told that the physicality involved in the performance of music by human bodies is another concern here – the activity of drawing sound out from wherever it is stationed.

The slow motion of crimson's end leads into the drawn-out and slight opening of miniata, the fleeting soundscape and unorthodox instrumental force required of which recalls Lachenman. This is the darkest work on the disc, ploughing over the same ground mood-wise that Penderecki worked so well in early compositions such as Fluorescences. Eerie and dissonant accordion is accompanied by sudden strikes from a varied percussion section, a wordless chorus' intoning joining a shrill, percussive piano part in shifting in and out of frame. Although the instrumental writing and the performance are both very accomplished this work is less interesting than the first two, providing as it does a monotonous vista of bleakness that has already become over-familiar as the trade of certain other modernist composers (another point of reference is the late work of Nono). Doubtless powerful and unsettling in live performance, miniata's length of over half an hour does not fare so well on CD, where the three movements are also not given separate tracks. The second movement is more interesting than the other two but the overall effect is one of endurance rather than enjoyment (although of course these two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive).

Overall though it is a good disc, showing us a British composer of interest along with some accomplished performances, notably by pianist Nicolas Hodges.

By Liam Cagney