Thursday, 25 October 2018

Colour and movement: orchestral music by Kenneth Hesketh

Kenneth Hesketh - In Ictu Oculi - Paladino Musc
Kenneth Hesketh In Ictu Oculi: Orchestral Works; BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Christoph-Mathias Mueller; Paladino Music Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 October 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Three substantial works showcasing the vivid textures of Kenneth Hesketh's orchestral music

This significant new disc from the Austrian label Paladino Music consists of three major orchestral works by the contemporary British composer Kenneth Hesketh, Knotted Tongues, Of Time and Disillusionment and In Ictu Oculi performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Christoph-Mathias Mueller.

Previously I have reviewed a disc of chamber music [see my review] and Clare Hammond's disc of piano music [see my review] by Hesketh, but this is the first of his large scale orchestral works to come my way. Hesketh began composing whilst a chorister at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, producing his first work for orchestra at the age of thirteen. At nineteen he received his first formal commission for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Charles Groves. He studied at the Royal College of Music with Edwin Roxburgh, Joseph Horovitz and Simon Bainbridge, and attended Tanglewood in 1995 as the Leonard Bernstein Fellow where he studied with Henri Dutilleux. He trained as a pianist and percussionist.


Knotted Tongues from 2012 (revised 2014) was commissioned and premiered by Seattle Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ludovic Morlot. The idea behind the work is a complex philosophical one, based on Rene Descartes' "beast machines". So Hesketh translates the idea of unreliable machines into the formal musical structures of the piece. Does that matter to the listener? I'm not sure.

The piece plunges straight in, with a vivid orchestral sound filled with colour and texture. It is a large orchestra, dextrously used. Overall, there is a constant sense of tumbling forward into new textures and timbres.

And the title, this is a reference to Benson Borick's book on the history and treatment of stammering!

The composer's programme note describes his 2018 piece, Of Time and Disillusionment as being written with a focus on leanness and clarity and uses a reduced, quasi-classical orchestra. There are five movements, though seven sections:
  1. Fragmented escapements
  2. Ritornelli
  3. Notturni per i defunti (Notturno 1 - Petite Sonnerie - Notturno 2)
  4. Corrupted Dances (Geistertanze)
  5. Regulated Escapements
The titles include terms related to clockwork as well as to rhythmic gestures which can evidently be found in Hesketh's other work. The first movement gives us sharp fragments of textures, with a great use of orchestral colour and a sense of the music skittering about from one fragment to another. The second movement is vivid and lively, all glittering surfaces. The third movement evokes, not surprisingy, night music with spare, evocative textures and hints of Bartok. Hesketh uses a lot of solo instruments here, and only the chiming of the tubular breaks the classical mould.The fourth movement is lively, full of strong colours and driving rhythms, with vivid changes of texture and timbre. The final movement, quiet yet with a skittering texture punctuated with chords, gradually evaporating - perhaps the mechanism winding down.

The final work on the disc In Ictu Oculi (in the blink of an eye) has the idea of Memento Mori at its centre, it is an extended meditation upon the transience of time and that all things come to an end. The formal architecture uses the notion of a journey, a single convoluted route through the musical structures. It starts out with a sense of stasis, all impressionistic textures which evoke the music of a French composer like Dutilleux. Become more mobile, the music gradually become more intense with dramatic gestures to the fore, developing a real sense of drama.

Hesketh's music on this disc is striking, yet whereas the composer's clear preoccupation is with formal structures and construction, what came over to me was the way he uses orchestral colour and timbre to provide striking textures, often in layers, with a great sense of movement between them.

The performances from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Christoph-Mathias Mueller are spot on, with the orchestra bringing out the composer's textures and colours with dazzling accuracy.

Kenneth Hesketh (born 1968) - Knotted Tongues
Kenneth Hesketh - Of Time and Disillusionment
Kenneth Hesketh - In Ictu Oculi
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Christoph-Mathias Mueller (conductor)
Recorded at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 19-20 September 2017
Paladino Music PMR092 1CD [54.42]

Available from Amazon.
(Released 2 November 2018)

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Abbandonata: Italian cantatas from Carolyn Sampson and Robert King  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Vivid story telling: Schubert's Swansong with Sir John Tomlinson and Christopher Glynn (★★★★) - CD review
  • Music for Windy Instruments: Sounds from the court of King James I (★★★½) - CD review
  • Independent Opera Showcase Recital at Wigmore Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Damn fine music: Stanford's Mass Via Victrix (1914-1918) receives its belated premiere  - feature
  • A visit to Italy at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Untold riches - music from Estonia & the Baltic at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Southbank Sinfonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy in Grieg, Prokofiev and Beethoven (★★★★)  concert review
  • A Bernstein Celebration - London English Song Festival - concert review
  • Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes (★★★) - theatre review
  •  Something for everyone: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess from English National Opera (★★★★)  - opera review
  •  Handel's Radamisto from English Touring Opera (★★★★½) - Opera review
  • Portrait of a life (or many): Art songs from the African diaspora (★★★★) - concert review
  • Crowd-funding & collaboration: new choral music from Lumen  - interview
  •  Home

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