Live review: ELISION play Ferneyhough

Brian Ferneyhough: Intermedio alla ciaconna, Time and Motion Study I, Unsichtbare Farben, Time and Motion Study II

Newton Armstrong – electronics
Séverine Ballon – cello
Graeme Jennings – violin
Carl Rosman – bass clarinet

Kings Place, London, 7 March 2011

As an unofficial coda to the Barbican’s Ferneyhough festivities of the week before, ELISION brought five of the composer’s solo pieces to Kings Place for their first visit of  2011. I often don’t get on with solo instrumental pieces, finding that they often lack the necessary drama, conflict, whatever you want to call it, to propel things along, give the piece a purpose. Solo Ferneyhough, however, is something quite different: the best pieces are hugely purposeful, almost defiantly so.

ELISION have been masters of this repertoire since at least their 1998, when they released a CD of solo Ferneyhough on Etcetera that included the world premiere recordings of three pieces (Bone Alphabet, Unity Capsule and Time and Motion Study II) that have now become almost standard rep – at least among the select number of players who take the time to learn them. That CD also included Carl Rosman playing Time and Motion Study I for bass clarinet, and it was he who introduced this work tonight.

I say introduced, because Rosman – never one to leave a loose thread unworried – prefaced his performance with a brief but pertinent lecture on Ferneyhough’s first (rejected) version of the piece, illustrating this with examples played from those early sketches. Besides the bonus of being able to listen to previously unheard Ferneyhough, and the interest of hearing something of how the early version (for ‘normal’ B flat clarinet, rather than bass) morphed into the final piece, it was a rare pleasure to hear Ferneyhough’s music broken down into bite-sized chunks like this. If the actual performance had a faint air of listening to Wagner with a leitmotif catalogue in hand the pay-off was a much clearer navigational route through the music, and some sense of the relative hierachy between certain passages.

Graeme Jennings played Intermedio alla ciaccona here last year, but this time – probably as much to with mood as anything else – I was much more gripped by the music, even if Jennings attacked the piece both times with equal gusto. His high, rapid passage work on this occasion was absolutely electrifying – the most obviously brilliant playing of the evening, for my money. Unsichtbare Farben is much more expansive – by Ferneyhough’s standards it’s almost lyrical – so there isn’t the opportunity to surf the virtuosity; the energy has to come from elsewhere. Jennings succeeded on that score at least, destroying his bow’s hair for the second time of the evening, but this is simply a more problematic piece.

The second half of this short concert comprised Time and Motion Study II, the legendary ‘electric chair music’ for solo speaking cellist and live electronics. It was certainly welcome to have the opportunity to experience this piece live, something the Barbican’s Total Immersion didn’t manage despite devoting a whole morning to it. There the performer (on film) was Neil Heyde, who gave an aggressive, quite masculine rendition in which cello, voice and electronics harmonised in the service of singular narrative line. In contrast Séverine Ballon’s performance was fragile, fragmented – and dramatically much richer. A quirk of the piece is that the tape loops employed are set to clock time (9 and 14 seconds), independent of the tempo of the individual player. So the point at which a piece of looped material comes back can be dramatically different between performances, in turn affecting the response of the player as they struggle to progress through their own part (Ballon said afterwards that it is often hard to hear what you’re playing at all such is the level of contradictory musical information coming over the speakers). The times at which material was bouncing back in Ballon’s performance seemed to be as unsettling as possible. Whereas Heyde’s performance bound and sustained a core identity, Ballon, as clouds of rosin rose into the spotlights, seemed to disintegrate before us.

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