Sunday, 6 January 2019

Ancient and modern: Liam Byrne, a viola da gamba and a laptop at Baroque at the Edge

Liam Byrne (Photo Tom Roelofs)
Liam Byrne (Photo Tom Roelofs)
Muhly, Finnis, Milea, Mills, Marais, Picforth, Sainte Colombe; Liam Byrne; Baroque at the Edge at LSO St Lukes Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 October 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Music for viola da gamba and laptop, a fascinating and sometimes powerful recital which mixed the viola da gamba with a very contemporary twist

Liam Byrne is one of those performers who pops up in a variety of guises, working with everyone from Emma Kirkby to Damon Albarn. Technically a period instrument specialist playing the bass viol and viola da gamba (we caught him a few years ago playing viol duets at one of the Courtauld Gallery's late events), Byrne also plays a lot of contemporary music, taking his instrument into the 21st century [he was one of the performers in Alex Mills' powerful new opera, Dear Marie Stopes, see my review]. There is an interesting Q&A with Byrne on the This is Solo website published in advance of Byrne's 2016 recital in the SOLO concert series.

So Liam Byrne's afternoon recital at LSO St Luke's as part of Baroque at the Edge on Saturday 5 January 2019 presented a fascinating combination of the very old and the very new. Byrne played a viola da gamba, an instrument whose origins date back to the 15th or 16th century, yet most of the repertoire of the concert was very new, with music by Nico Muhly (born 1981), Samuel Milea (born 1995), Edmund Finnis (born 1984), and Alex Mills alongside works by Marin Marais, Picforth and Sainte Colombe. Many of the contemporary pieces included electronics, provided by Byrne's laptop, which varied from providing a drone background in Nico Muhly's Drones and Viola da Gamba to live-processing electronics giving a variety of different acoustics and reverberations in Alex Mills' Suspensions and Solutions. And the electronics was not confined to the new pieces, for Picforth's In Nomine Byrne created an intriguing new version of this Tudor piece.

The event started casually, with extracts from Nico Muhly's Arvo-Pärt-like Long Phrases for the Wilton Diptych playing in the background, then at some point Byrne started playing his viola da gamba, the lights went down and we moved into Muhly's Drones and Viola da Gamba where the electronics provided the drones and Byrne played a very modern take on 'divisions on a ground' on his gamba, moving from the meditative to the violent and back.

This was followed by a pair of pieces linked by their rhetorical flexibility, first Marin Marais' thoughtful Prelude in D and then Unvoiced by the young composer Samuel Milea who is studying at the Royal Academy of Music. Milea's piece was inspired by a family member suffering from demetia, and used a variety of different modes of expression, creating thoughtful fragments flowing into each other.

Byrne's account of Picforth's In Nomine from a Tudor part-book was one of the most striking pieces in the evening. The original piece is for five-part viol consort and Byrne played each part in turn, capturing it with live electronics and then playing back so that the work slowly built from a single austere tenor part (Byrne started with the tenor, added the bass and then worked upwards) gradually adding depth and richess. The result was eerily wonderful, moving from the slow careful single minimalist line to the wonderfully rich, treacly and chesnutty final result. I had wished for a final reprise with all five parts played back from the laptop and Byrne's gamba finally silent, but that was not to be.

Edmund Finnis' Lines Curved Rivers Mirrored was a four-movement work for gamba alone, each movement exploring a different aspect of the instruments capabilities, from a free prelude, to a modern moto perpetuo, to high sustained passages ending with fast divisions. It was a striking piece, but I would have liked a final summation movement which combined elements from the previous ones.

Alex Mills' Suspensions and solutions arose following a conversation that he and Byrne had about the (chemical) differences between suspensions and solutions. Byrne explained the context, Mills visiting Byrne to find him dying wool and the two then talking about the difference between a dye (which is a solution) and an ink (which is a suspension). Mills piece then uses live processing electronics to create a variety of different acoustics and reverberations which are applied to Byrne's gamba, ranging from dramatic chords places in a strong reverberation, to more melodic fragments in a gentler acoustic. And it was not just reverberation, there was live capture too so that by the end Byrne's gradual dying away was accompanied and sometimes dominated by echoes of his recorded self. The result was sometimes dramatic and sometimes very magical.

We ended with an old piece, by Marin Marais' master Jean de Sainte Colombe, a Chaconne which was all evocative grace and dancing rhythms. There was an encore, this time by Karl Friedrich Abel, player who collaborated with the composer Johann Christoph Bach on their concert series in London's Hannover Square but who also played the viola da gamba at a time when it was long out of fashion.

We did not need programme notes, as Byrne imaginatively introduced all the items. But I cannot have been the only person who failed to catch some of the composers' names (luckily I was able to email the festival's PR representative to get the information), and if the festival wants to encourage its audience to explore further then perhaps a little more printed detail would be in order.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Diverse tapestry: Clare Norburn's Burying the Dead at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Rediscovering her Polish musical roots: violinist Jennifer Pike on the personal connections in her latest disc, The Polish Violin - interview 
  • Strong and vibrant: Tallis masses and motets from the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bach's Goldberg Variations - CD review
  • 2018 in opera and concert reviews - article
  • Concerto for silent soloists: my encounter with Gavin Sutherland, music director of English National Ballet - interview
  • That Old Thing: remembering Covent Garden's revivals of historic productions in the 1980s - article
  • The Medieval Tendency - article
  • Bach's Christmas Oratorio at the St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Illuminating a neglected work: John Andrews & the BBC Concert Orchestra revive Sir Arthur Sullivan's sacred oratorio, The Light of the World  (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Seasonal touches: The Tallis Scholas & Peter Phillips at St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • The Dead City: Robert Carsen's production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Komische Oper, Berlin  (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Cause for Celebration: Roxanna Panufnik on the Last Night of the Proms & commemorating the Centenary of Polish Independence - interview
  • The Sixteen at Christmas - The Little Child  at Cadogan Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Home

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