It never ceases to amaze me how a diverse group of composers, such as members of CNM, working in relative isolation, come up each year with such interesting programmes and how certain themes seem to emerge. Two things struck me this year: the contemplative atmosphere that informed much of the music, and the sense of historical development which composers seemed to evoke. Alan Parsons’ Three Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, written as something of a student exercise in 1953, hark back to the expressionistic brevity of the early works of Schonberg, Berg and Webern. Laurence Glazier’s Sonata for Bass Clarinet and Piano was a delightful and entertaining evocation of the neoclassical, jazz influenced music of the 1920s and 30s. Colin Blundell’s Five Mathoms – Hobbit speak betrayed his love of English music of the same period, while Alan Bullard’s Bede for Soprano and Bass Clarinet and Tim Torry’s sensitive settings of Charlotte Mews’ moving First World War poems The Face of Grief, although moving beyond it in both rhythmic and harmonic language, had their roots very much in the same tradition, most prominently in the careful and effective setting of the English language. Alan P’s Three Songs from ‘Chamber Music’ by James Joyce had a similar nostalgia for the neo-Romanticism of the pre-second world war British music, although using composition techniques that owed much to the war time and post-ww2 music of Messaien and early Stockhausen. Like Tim’s songs, they were dedicated to Lindsay Gowers in recognition of the wonderful work she has done for CNM over the years (since 1994 to be exact), giving many first performances of works by CNM composers. Mark Bellis’s Benedicite Omnia Opera belonged, again at several removes, to another great British musical tradition, that of cathedral choral music. This was a highly personal and original setting of a text well-known in Anglican circles. Tim Torry’s One Intent for Solo Piano continued the transcendental and contemplative mood, this time with a Buddhist inspiration.
Another theme to emerge was that of extended instrumental technique. This was an important part of the compositional philosophy of the early 20th century expressionist composers. Indeed it goes back farther than them. As Michael Finnissy remarked when he was with us a few years ago, even the ordinary orchestral string writing of Brahms, who, in spite of his ‘progressive’ side, could hardly be thought of as an ‘experimental’ composer, would have been considered impossible a couple of generations earlier. While Beethoven’s late Piano Sonatas and String Quartets took instrumental techniques to new levels; and Bach’s writing pushed to the limits the instrumental and vocal techniques of his day. The tendency to push instrumental techniques to new limits came to the fore not only in the electronically enhanced pieces, but also in the advanced bass clarinet techniques used by Sarah Watts in Anthony Clare’s Scawfell, a seminal piece for this duo. Stuart Russell made evocative use of electronics in his Thames Estuary Nocturne. Julia Usher’s setting of, or rather commentary on, extracts from Jamie McKendrick’s thought-provoking Dark Matter: Poems of Space, was described by the composer as being for Bass Clarinet, Multitrack Sound Canvas and Projection. Julia certainly used this multimedia apparatus to great dramatic, indeed theatrical, effect.
Also in the programme were Piers Hallawell’s Minnesang and songs by Samuel Barber. The Hallawell was an impressive piece. From the opening flourishes and arabesques to the final arresting and brooding instrumental interchanges, the confident musical language was projected with colour and authority by Sarah Watts and Anthony Clare, who premiered the work at Edinburgh earlier in the year. The Barber songs were lucidly communicated by Lindsay and Anthony, serving to remind us of the parallels and contrasts between the English and American lyrical traditions, and the concern for the text by both.
May we express the composers’ eternal gratitude to Lindsay Gowers, Sarah Watts and Anthony Clare for their splendid and dedicated performances.
A P and AB May 2011