|REVIEWS: metier msv 28501 Brian Ferneyhough Choral Music|
Here, there are two very early works from the 1960s, including the astonishing Missa Brevis, which is a veritable compendium of modernist vocal techniques. The 12 solo lines leap about in jagged intervals, in complex rhythms, often employing micro-tones. This performance generates an intense expressive heat, shot through with passages of icy calm – like the astonishing moment in the Kyrie where two sopranos to a perilous but perfectly-tuned interval. Alongside the purely choral works are two pieces drawn from Ferneyhough’s recent opera Shadowtime, which are very different – meditative, tinged with tragedy, and in Stelae for Failed Time suffused with fascinating electronic sounds. The recording as a whole must have been a tremendous labour of love. My only complaint is the lack of texts in the liner notes. Performance ×××× Sound ××××
The two other works constitute scenes from the opera Shadowtime. In “The Doctrine of Similarity” the choir is joined by a small instrumental ensemble (drawn from Lontano’s membership), and in “Stelae for Failed Time” by an electroacoustic set-up through which the composer’s own voice gradually emerges.
The interpretative standard of these performances is uniformly high, as is the quality and presence of the sound recording; but in “Stelae” the results are exceptional: the individual voices are more distinctly audible and their interventions are still more characterful in shape and in weight. The blending of voices and electronic media is also finely judged. There are perceptive notes, some by the composer himself,. Sadly, though, none of the texts are included.
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As John Hails points out in his thought-provoking note, the writing of sacred choral music to Latin texts invited shunning from the cultural and religious establishments of the 1960s. Yet the Two Marian Motets (1966, though the first was incomplete until 2002) evince a synthesis of the English Renaissance and European pot-war choral traditions provisional only in the light of Ferneyhough’s later development. The Missa Brevis (1969) finds this development at a crucial juncture, with the ‘Kyrie’ pursuing an atomisation of its text that the ‘Gloria’, with its confrontation of sung and spoken layers, brings to a head. The latter sections feel detached by comparison, Ferneyhough having broken through to a more personal treatment of words where the collision between complexity and indeterminacy creates its own freedom.
The remaining works are part of Shadowtime – the opera ‘around and about’ the philosopher Walter Benjamin on which Ferneyhough worked for much of the last decade, and whose seven scenes trace a path towards ever more intense abstraction. ‘The Doctrine of Familiarity’ (the third scene) comprises 13 canons, variously scored for voices and instruments, that offer an oblique but potent overview of Benjamin’s precepts in the light of his tragic fate; and with texts by Charles Bernstein, whose acerbic but never soulless intellectualism offers the perfect complement. ‘Stelae for Failed Time’ (the final scene) unfolds as a continuous entity where the aural image of Benjamin is gradually dispersed with only the pre-recorded voice of the composer remaining to close the work in resigned incomprehension.
All the performances are as authoritative as one would expect from the BBC Singers (ably accompanied by Lontano in the Shadowtime scenes) with a spacious immediacy ideal in the unaccompanied works. The complete Shadowtime is essential for appreciating the present scenes in their rightful context, but these have an extra immediacy that makes them ideal as an entrée into that work.
Presentation (the booklet also features an insightful article by the composer) is up to Metier’s high standards. Now, which company will grasp the challenge of giving us a disc of Ferneyhough’s three major orchestral works?
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In the form of the canon, Ferneyhough notes, time is 'folded and unfolded, origami-like, against itself' – in decided contrast to B.A. Zimmermann's circular conception of time. Ferneyhough's method also differs from Zimmermann in avoiding musical quotes. The sole exception occurs in Motetus absconditus (No. 4), which compresses an isorhythmic motet from the Montpelier Codex, 'rather like a wrecked automobile that has been passed through the crusher'. In its James Joyce-like literary recyclings, Charles Bernstein's libretto reflects an analogous process. The third motet, Cannot Cross, employs the broadest range of vocal techniques. This is one of several a cappella movements, the accompanied pieces featuring combinations of three clarinets, piano (Dominic Saunders), percussion (Julian Warburton) and solo violin (Caroline Balding). No. 5, Amphibolies II, is purely instrumental, just as a guitar concerto takes up one whole scene in Shadowtime.
The disc's other extract from Shadowtime shows a characteristic virtuosity of texture and timbre. Stelae for Failed Time (Solo for Melancholiaas the Angel of History) is for twelve voices and pre-recorded sound, including the composer as reciter. Here the perspective becomes wholly internal. Two parallel texts are sung simultaneously, interrupted by Joycean revisitings of lines from the first scene of Shadowtime. Taking advantage of an IRCAM commission, Ferneyhough collaborated with Gilbert Nouno on the synthesised materials. The initial electronic passages recall Walter Benjamin's passion for wind-up toys.
The remaining pieces on this disc date from the latter half of the 1960s. Of Two Marian Motets for two solo sopranos and choir, the first (Ave mater gloriosasalvatoris) was unfinished until Ferneyhough responded to a request from the Jeunes Solistes in 2002. In both motets he now perceives the influence of Dunstable – in the harmony – and Thomas Tallis. The virtuosic-experimental character of the Missa Brevis of 1969 effectively excludes it from liturgical performance. The Mass is for twelve solo singers divided into three groups, and it begins in a haze of syllabic fragments. Later, the words are sung, spoken and whispered. In the final movement, one group sings the text while the other voices explore other rhythms. As delivered by members of the BBC Singers, this is still a fascinating piece to listen to.