Thursday 15 December 2016

A Land so Luminous

A Land so Luminous music by Richard Causton and Philip Hesketh; Mary Bevan, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Douglas Finch, Lisa Nelsen, Joseph Spooner, the Continuum, Philip Headlam; Prima Facie
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 8 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Two contrasting contemporary British composers showcased on this disc of instrumental music

A Land so Luminous on the Prima Facie label, is a disc of music by two contemporary British composers, Richard Causton and by Kenneth Hesketh, performed by the Continuum Ensemble conducted by Philip Headlam, with Mary Bevan (soprano), Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin ), Douglas Finch (piano), Lisa Nelsen (flute) and Joseph Spooner (cello). The disc contains Kenneth Hesketh's A Land so Luminous, Cautionary Tales, IMMH, and Netsuke, and Richard Causton's Threnody, Rituals of Hunting and Blooding, Non Mi Comporto Male, Sleep, Night Piece.

The disc opens with the group of pieces by Kenneth Hesketh. A Land so Luminous, played by Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin) and Alexander Szram (piano), which is inspired by an episode in a work by Cyrano de Bergerac. Originally composed for violin and ensemble in 2003, it was arranged for violin and piano in 2009. The piece seems to be all about variety of texture, often busy and very vivid, the performers giving great clarity to the busy-ness.

Cautionary Tales is a three movement work arranged in 2002 for violin, clarinet and piano (Marie Lloyd, Marcus Barcham-Stevens, Douglas Finch) from Hesketh's larger piece Netsuke, which is also heard on the disc. The three movements are vivid character pieces, each inspired by a cautionary tale (from Der Struwelpeter, and from Le Petit Prince).
Contrasting and vivid, the first starts all brilliant excitement, the second is quiet and intense with flurries of drama, and the third is fast and furious. Hesketh make imaginative use of the material to create vivid and varied textures for the three instruments. The performance is admirable, these do not sound easy pieces.

IMMH from 2012 is a short, imagined shamanic ritual, performed by cellist Joseph Spooner. It uses a great variety of techniques, including getting the performer to sing, yet the main impression is of concentrated intensity, and a certain austerity.

Netsuke, written in 2001 and revised in 2004, is performed by the Continuum Ensemble, conductor Philip Headlam. The work uses the same mix of cautionary tales, but surrounds them by more material. Again we start fast and furious, with vivid variations of texture and dynamics, followed by a more quietly spare movement with some magical textures, and finally a rather eerie movement. Throughout it is Hesketh's ear for sonority which is noticeable.

The second half of the disc is devoted to the music of Richard Causton, a complete change in style. Threnody, from 1991, sets a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva (1892-1941) for soprano, clarinets and piano (Mary Bevan, Marie Lloyd, Sarah Thurlow, Philip Headlam). It is a bleak, austere piece with edgy moments, the instruments weaving lines around the vocal line.

Rituals of Hunting and Blooding from 2000 is a two movement work depicting imagined dramatic hunting rituals, performed by the Continuun Ensemble, conductor Philip Headlam. The first movements is high energy and angry, the different intstruments receding in and out of view. The second movement is slower but just as intense, with lines weaving round each other. Causton makes great use of the instrumental colours, but overall this is not easy music and it reaches a very bleak end.

Non Mi Comporto Male, from 1993, played by Douglas Finch (piano) starts off full of severity, tending to denseness at time, with tantalising hints of jazz which gradually coalesce until finally, as if by magic, we hear a Fats Waller tune!

Sleep, from 2006, was inspired by a George Sefaris poem. It is a short, intense work for flute (played by Lisa Nelsen) where the tone of the flute brings real clarity to the texture.

The final work in the programme Night Piece plays the same trick as Non Mi Comporto Male only this time with the slow movement of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, so out of the high, bright almost music-box texture on the piano (Douglas Finch) emerges Mozart's famous tune.

There are some striking individual works on the disc, and some stunning performances of some difficult music. Yet. I am not certain that the programme adds up to a satisfying whole. I was unclear of the wisdom of including two pieces by Hesketh which both revisit the same material, but this may well simply be a reflection of his technique. Overall the disc is a bit of a contemporary lucky bag, something to dip into.

Kenneth Hesketh (born 1968) - A Land so Luminous
Kenneth Hesketh - Cautionary Tales
Kenneth Hesketh - IMMH
Kenneth Hesketh - Netsuke
Richard Causton (born 1971) - Threnody
Richard Causton - Rituals of Hunting and Blooding
Richard Causton - Non Mi Comporto Male
Richard Causton - Sleep
Richard Causton - Night Piece
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Lisa Nielsen (flute)
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin)
Marcus Barcham-Smith (violin)
Marie Lloyd (clarinet)
Sarah Thurlow (clarinet)
Joseph Spooner (cello)
Alexander Szram (piano)
Douglas Finch (piano)
The Continuum Ensemble
Philip Headlam (conductor)
Recorded 16-16 January 2016, Blackheath Halls, 16 February 2016, RCM Studios, London
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