Total Immersion? Brian Ferneyhough

Roberto Matta: La terre est un homme

Brian Ferneyhough – Total Immersion

String Quartet no.2; Sonatas for String Quartet
Quatuor Diotima

Plötzlichkeit (ukp); Carceri d’invenzione III; Missa brevis; La terre est un homme
BBC Symphony Orchestra
BBC Singers
Martyn Brabbins, conductor
James Morgan, conductor

The Barbican, London, 26 February 2011

In the end, it was all about La terre est un homme. Ferneyhough’s notorious first orchestral score of 1979 – not heard on these shores in 32 years – had attracted all the pre-show attention and more than deserved it on the night. But it was only the final 15 minutes of a very full Saturday – what about the rest?

Frankly, the rest of this ‘Total Immersion’ looked and felt as though it had been organised around this single performance. Four other events preceded the evening concert: a talk and video screening on the subject of Time and Motion Study II (including a filmed performance by Neil Heyde); a concert by the Quatuor Diotima; a ‘meet the composer’ conversation between Ferneyhough and Tom Service, which included a performance (by Matthew Featherstone) of Cassandra’s Dream Song for flute (1970); and a short concert of works by Guildhall composers that also included Richard Uttley playing Ferneyhough’s Lemma-Icon-Epigram (1981). No other piece – apart from the UK premiere of Ferneyhough’s only other work for orchestra, 2006’s Plötzlichkeit – carried the same programming weight as La terre. Even the Diotima’s concert, which should on paper have provided a chamber counter-balance to the heavy orchestral and vocal programme of the evening concert, included just two works, the Second String Quartet (1980) and Sonatas for String Quartet (1967), the latter practically a student work.

Back when the Southbank Centre used to hold full composer weekends, it was possible to provide a pretty decent retrospective of a composer’s work over the course of two days. In the one day of a Barbican Total Immersion that isn’t possible and other curatorial angles must be sought. This day clearly wasn’t meant to cover Ferneyhough’s total career – Plötzlichkeit was the only programmed work that was less than 25 years old. (In fact many of the works were older than many of the audience, an ironic spin on the aging of the new music.*) The absence of any of the recent string quartets, a medium into which Ferneyhough is belatedly growing comfortable, was a particular disappointment.

If there was a focus, it was on the archetypically complex Ferneyhough of the 1970s and early 1980s: indeed in beginning with Time and Motion Study II and ending with La terre, the day was bookended with perhaps the composer’s two supreme statements in this form. Certainly we were encouraged to think of them in that way.

This is probably the most controversial period in the composer’s music and certainly that upon which much of his later, latterly stereotyped, reputation is built. The difficulty for the Barbican and BBC SO was to find a way around this reputation in order to present the music as something far more emotionally and intellectually engaging – which it is – than a mere torture device for performers.

Part of the problem is that the music’s difficulties mean that the performance landscape, at least 20 or 30 years ago, was dominated by a very small group of players who inevitably established a certain performance practice – glacial, brittle, nervous, dry – around the works that they played. Any modern performer of the string quartets, for example, not only has to confront Ferneyhough’s notation but also the Arditti Quartet’s imprint on it.** The Quatuor Diotima navigate these waters well, on the whole, seeking an almost lyrical approach that emphasises line and overarching form without sacrificing articulative precision. There is some flattening of dynamics compared to the Ardittis, and certainly less air between the notes: the texture is more liquid, less perforated. This was a mixed blessing in the Second String Quartet, which was almost too obliging, but in Sonatas it gave rise to easily the most beautiful performance of the day.

This is a flawed piece: Ferneyhough is attempting to sustain a Webernian intensity for 45 minutes, but in spite of an almost limitless gestural inventiveness the conceit inevitably sags. However, its great redeeming feature comes in its final third as the unending sequence of aphorisms begin to congeal around the cello. The instrument takes two solos, and from then on clearly becomes the lead instrument. At the very end, as the texture dissolves down to the same repeated harmonics that opened the piece, it becomes apparent that this centre was in fact always there. The way in which the Diotimas brought out this shape was quite breathtaking.

Another early piece, the Missa brevis of 1969, was not served as well. Although they know the piece well enough to have recorded it, the BBC Singers looked cowed – perhaps they’ve bought into the reputation that this really is impossible music and that they shouldn’t risk finding their own voice within the composer’s instructions. There were some good moments – the literal high points of the sopranos’ top Es and E flats – but the rest lacked punch, contour or drama.

And so to the BBC Symphony Orchestra. There isn’t the same performance history context for Ferneyhough’s orchestral or large ensemble music as there is for his chamber and solo works, and the listener’s primary response is gratitude that the music is being performed at all. Even so, the BBC SO demonstrated serious commitment – in particular in Carceri d’invenzione III (1986), the centrepiece of the Carceri d’invenzione cycle that occupied Ferneyhough through much of the 1980s. One did wonder, however, that if a day like this wasn’t the occasion to stage the revival that the full cycle urgently needs, when would be?

Plötzlichkeit is built around a typical recent Ferneyhough conceit, which is of dozens of disconnected fragments or miniature movements, out of which the listener may construct a temporal continuity of their own. A similar idea lies behind Les froissements d’Aile Gabriel, for example, in which this fragmented form creates a music that deliberately overwhelms and disorientates, and it is a concept that interestingly reaches back nearly 40 years to the Sonatas for String Quartet. I confess that I find Ferneyhough’s music generally something that needs to be lived with over time and many listenings before it can be properly assimilated into my regular experience – few composers impose themselves on my mind or day-to-day perception to quite such an extent – so it is difficult to make a firm judgment on Plötzlichkeit on just this one hearing. My impression was in fact that all that change added up to something rather monotonous, as though the greater colour palette afforded by the orchestra in fact just gave rise to heaviness and immobility. The particular trajectories and energies of each of those micro-movements were subsumed by the orchestral mass. My favourite parts (or perhaps they were simply the most approachable) were in fact when the piece sounded least like itself – around the ‘insert’ for brass only and the harp and percussion passages that lead in and out of this. Nevertheless, with the disclaimer above in mind, I fully expect this view to be revised dramatically over time.

And La terre est un homme? As if to make a mockery of both my slow assimilation approach to Ferneyhough’s music, and the view that compositional complexity is inversely proportional to emotional effect, this was a quite staggering kick in the guts. I have no idea how the performance measured up to those two from 1979 but frankly it didn’t matter – most of us were left speechless. The organisers and participants in this Total Immersion day had done their best to cut through the huff and bluster that surrounds Ferneyhough and his music, but they struggled. In the end it came down to this one piece.

And one particular moment. You see, there is a dark secret to La terre: a hushed string chord of incredible luminosity that suddenly leaps out of the pages of phenomenally dense writing. As a moment of recontextualisation I know nothing else quite like it; it was so unlike anything I had been prepared to expect that I was almost knocked out of my seat. You had to be there. In the end, nothing spoke so eloquently or gripped so powerfully as Ferneyhough’s music itself.

A version of this review is also available at Musical Pointers.

You can listen to the orchestral concert, as well as the Quatuor Diotima’s performance of the Second String Quartet via the BBC iPlayer until midnight, Sunday 6 March.

* In a Q and A session with the composer, someone voiced their concern about the aging audience for contemporary music. An utterly stupid question that wasn’t borne out by a quick glance around the room, which was a pretty even spread from early 20s to 70s. As Judith Bingham has pointed out, however, that same glance will have noted almost no women, and even fewer non-white faces. Perhaps we need to stop gazing at our white, male navels quite so much.

** I recommend you also read Rob Dahm’s excellent post on the Ferneyhough/performance tradition nexus.


6 thoughts on “Total Immersion? Brian Ferneyhough

  1. Personally I dislike his pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
    Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship you ‘message’.

    … Ferneyhough… the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication

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