Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Music for concentrated and serious listening: Piers Hellawell's Up by the Roots on Delphian

Up by the roots, recent works by Piers Hellawell; Fidelio Trio, Sinead Morrissey, Paul Watkins, Huw Watkins, William Howard, Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble, Ulster Orchestra; Delphian
Up by the roots, recent works by Piers Hellawell; Fidelio Trio, Sinead Morrissey, Paul Watkins, Huw Watkins, William Howard, Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble, Ulster Orchestra; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 May 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
This disc of music from the last decade showcases the sheer diversity and strength of composer Piers Hellawell's work

This new disc of work by composer Piers Hellawell, the second disc of his work on Delphian, showcases music composed in the decade 2009-2019, as well as celebrating various creative partnerships that Hellawell has developed. We hear Up by the Roots for piano trio and narrator performed by the Fidelio Trio with Sinead Morrissey reading her own words, atria performed by cellist Paul Watkins and pianist Huw Watkins, Ground Truthing performed by the Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble, conductor Paul Hayes, Piani, Latebre performed by pianist William Howard and Wild Flow performed by the Ulster Orchestra, conductor Paul Watkins.

Hellawell is based in Belfast where he is professor of composition at Queen's University, and Bernard Hughes' introductory article in the CD booklet fascinatingly explores the ways that Hellawell is both physically and psychologically somewhat on the fringes of the British musical establishment. There is not doubt that his is a distinctive and characterful talent, and this selection of pieces from a decade helps to form a picture of his current approaches to musical style.
We begin with the 2016 melodrama Up by the Roots with text by the poet Sinead Morrissey. The piece, fascinatingly, starts almost like a sort of suite with music and text alternating, commenting and then the two gradually become intertwined. Sinead Morrissey reads her own text expressively, but I have to confess that I found her reading voice a little tricky to get accustomed to, and it did not seem to be quite what I wanted in this piece. But then, poets reading their own work is always tricky. The work starts with a long instrumental section, dark and intense, registering the work's seriousness, followed by a long spoken section from Morrissey, thereafter text and music intertwine closer and closer.

The text is a tough one, about migrants and migration and Hellawell responds with strong music which is full of colour and drama, making remarkable use of his three instruments. The slightly downbeat ending, leaves one somewhat in suspense.

Written in 2012, atria is a work for cello and piano in five movements, though it has its origins in two of Hellawell's earlier works, three main movements arising out of his 1992 piece Truth Or Consequences and two interludes based on the 1994 piece Sound Carvings from the Ice Wall. atria is dedicated to the performers on this disc, Paul and Huw Watkins. Hellwall in his introduction to the piece describes it as a journey, the music is fluid and mobile. At the opening, delicate flurries from the two instruments create some fascinating textures which during the piece are made even more striking by the use of extended techniques on the cello. The central movement, whilst marked 'Pesante' is certainly not heavy, but thoughtful and intense. And the final two take us into more mysterious territory. The piano does not strictly accompany, but goes on a parallel journey to that undertaken by the cello, the two sometimes sharing material, sometimes commenting and sometimes in parallel.

GroundTruthing from 2018, is here performed by five musicians from Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble, a Belfast-based new music group. It is a three movement work which further explores one of Hellawell's fascinations, the idea of presenting successive expansions of the same music, here explored in detail with Hellawell delighting in the way successive presentations of related material themselves relate to each other. This is complex music, which repays concentrated listening. The first movement 'Veloce' seems to make the most of extremes of contrast in timbre and register, whilst the second 'Vivo' starts with a series of gestures which gradually coalesce, but again we notice Hellawall's ear for timbre and contrasts of pitch. The final one opens with further drama, and we can appreciate the way the Hellawell is exploring his material, whilst at the same time challenging his players. This is music which uses the four instruments to create single, striking textures.

With Piani, Latebre of 2009, performed by pianist William Howard, Hellawell leaves it up to the performer to decide the order of the movements, with the three preceded by a short introduction, so on this disc we have 'Introduction', 'Etude', 'Impromptu', 'Ballade'. The first is short and somewhat rhapsodic, leading to a somewhat bluesy 'Etude' with pianistic flurries over an almost ground bass. 'Impromptu' starts of more delicately, flurries but no ground bass, but develops with interruptions of striking drama. 'Ballade' (Hellawell says in this note that the names are not of great individual significant), uses material similar to the previous movements, but creates something rather more thoughtful.

Hellawell's Wild Flow was written in 2015 for performance at the 2016 BBC Proms by the Ulster Orchestra. The work is a sequence of five movements, which Hellawell deliberately makes about nothing more than the interrelationships between the pieces. We open with another gesture, before the orchestra sets off on a vivid and dramatic journey, a short piece which is a fast curtain raiser to the rather perky rhythms of the second movement. Here everyone participates, to create what is entirely serious but rather fun and certainly forms a show-piece for the orchestra. The third movement, 'Largemente' starts quieter and thoughtful, bass clarinet to the fore. Something dramatic and intense gradually arises out of Bartokian night-music textures. The next movement is somewhat noisy and fast, with very mobile textures, whilst the finale is highly dynamic and very exciting.

Hellawell's work on this disc is characterised by a toughness and seriousness, he expects his listeners to pay attention. And if you do, the rewards are great as not only is his sense of structure highly inventive and satisfying, but he has a remarkable ear for colour. So this might be serious stuff, but it isn't dour, the music is full of colour, timbre and imagination. The performances on this disc are superb, and many of the artists are ones with whom Hellawell has worked for some time, thus creating a powerful and satisfying showcase.

Piers Hellawell (born 1956) - Up by the Roots
Piers Hellawell - atria
Piers Hellawell - GroundTruthing
Piers Hellawell - Piani, Lateber
Piers Hellawell - Wild Flow
Fidelio Trio (Darragh Morgan, violin, Adi Tal, cello, Mary Dullea, piano)
Sinead Morrissey (narrator)
Paul Watkins (cello)
Huw Watkins (piano)
Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble (Aisling Agnes, flute/piccolo/melodica, Sara Watts clarinet/bass clarinet, Joanne Quigley McParland, violin, David McCann, cello, Sinead Hayes, conductor)
William Howard (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/Paul Watkins, conductor
Recorded on 2 February 2018 and 15, 24, 29 March 2019 in the Harty Room, Queen's University, Belfast, 31 March-1 April in the Ulster Hall, Belfast
DELPHIAN DCD34233 1CD [77.14]

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