Wednesday 26 June 2019

Distinctive, uncompromising, theatrical: the music of Erika Fox revealed on the Goldfield Ensemble's Paths from NMC

Erika Fox - Goldfield Ensemble - NMC
Erika Fox chamber works; Goldfield Ensemble; NMC
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A forgotten but not negligible voice, Erika Fox is receiving her first major recording at the age of 80. This is a strong, striking and vividly theatrical voice

You probably will not recognise the name of the composer Erika Fox on this NMC portrait disc, Paths, and may, understandably, think that NMC is giving an opportunity, to a young, unrecorded composer. Yet Erika Fox is over 80, with a long and distinguished career but somehow the modern recording and publishing industry has passed her by.

Kate Romano, artistic director of the Goldfield Ensemble which recorded this new disc, writes of being recommended Erika Fox's music by composer Nicola Lefanu. Romano did some research and found nothing. To hear Erika Fox's music you had to go to her house. [Read Romano's interview about Erika Fox and her music on Composers Edition]

Erika Fox
Erika Fox
Erika Fox was born in 1936 in Vienna, coming to London in 1939 as a refugee. She grew up in a Hasidic rabinical family where music, dancing, rituals and belief in miracles were part of daily life. Her childhood musical world included Hasidic chant and much music of Eastern European origins. She studied with Harrison Birtwistle and Jeremy Dale Roberts. In the 1970s she was involved with the Fires of London, the Nash Ensemble and Darlington with major performances right through to the mid-1990s.

And then nothing. To a certain extent family intervened, but to fall off the map entirely is striking and puzzling.

The disc includes a wide range of music from 1980 through to 2005, and what you notice at first listen is it distinctiveness, its striking sound world and its uncompromising nature. This is music which owes little to Western classical music, there is no harmonic development. Fox describes it as 'single melodic lines, often in hereophony, held together by dint of varied repetition, and moulded, sometimes by use of percussion, to provide a ritualistic and perhaps theatrical whole'. Indeed, much of the music could be imagined in some sort of theatrical use, and many of the works feel as if they have a dramatic narrative.

It is music which would have taken a strong place in the 1970s world of the Fires of London, but unlike some composers of the period Fox's style does not seem to have relaxed into writing symphonies and concertos. The two most recent works on the disc, Malinconia Militare (2003) and Cafe Warsaw 1944 (2005), are as uncompromising and as theatrical as the earlier ones.

Despite the numerous influences that Erika Fox attributes to her music, in neither sounds specifically Eastern European nor Jewish, it is very much itself, uncompromising, strong, richly coloured. Melodic material is highly anglular and her mode of composition gives the music an incredible restlessness but also a sense of integrity.

Paths Where Mourners Tread is the earliest work on the disc, dating from 1980, and is written for string quartet, double bass, harp, flutes, oboe/cor anglais, and percussion. It was inspired by a Philip Larkin poem and has a strong feel of procession (albeit interrupted) about it, and Erika Fox in her notes talks about individual instruments taking on the role of 'Reciter', punctuated by repeated musical devices which provide unity and the sense of progression.

Quasi Una Cadenza, from 1983, is for clarinets, horn and piano, though at times there sound like more instruments playing! It feels like what it is, an extended group cadenza with different instruments coming to the fore at different times.

On Visiting Stravinsky's Grave at San Michele from 1988 is for piano solo. The work is not strictly descriptive but uses material (very strong and striking material) which Erika Fox wrote after visiting Stravinsky's grave in San Michele in Venice. It is often quite a stark piece, making you wonder at the thoughts arising from the visit.

The intriguingly named Malincolia Militare is from 2003, for piano trio. It was commissioned by Howard Skempton for the Leamington Festival (so Erika Fox did not indeed entirely drop off the map, thankfully). It was inspired by the Italian poet Amelia Roselli's Webern Opus 4. Erika Fox describes Roselli's poems as 'tense, with violence and lyricism presented together as an integral part of the whole structure'. Something which, perhaps, could be used to describe Erika Fox's music too. The title refers to the war in Iraq, which started whilst she was writing the piece, hence military melancholy.

The final work on the disc, Cafe Warsaw 1944 from 2005 is for violin, cello, flutes, oboe/cor anglais, clarinets, piano, percussion. Again it is inspired by a poem Cafe (Warsaw 1944) by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2002) which reminisces about a cafe frequented by friends during the war, of which he imagines himself to be the sole survivor.

The recording is clearly a labour of love for Kate Romano and the Goldfield Ensemble, performances are exemplary, bringing vivid colour and vibrancy to Erika Fox's striking aural world, in which is almost certainly not easy music.

The music on the disc is only the tip of the iceberg, Erika Fox is a relatively prolific composer and there is more to explore, including an opera.

Erika Fox (born 1936) - Paths Where Mourners Tread (1983) [23.07]
Erika Fox - Quasi Una Cadenza (1988) [13.39]
Erika Fox - On Visiting Stravinsky's Grave at San Michele (1988) [12.35]
Erika Fox - Malinconia Militare (2003)
Erika Fox - Cafe Warsaw 1944 (2005)
Goldfield Ensemble (Nicola Goldsheider violin, Bridget Carey viola, Sophie Harris cello, Elena Hull double bass, Hugh Webb harp, Carla Rees flutes, Kate Romano clarinets, Anna Durrance oboe/cor anglais, George Barton percussion, Richard Uttley piano, Ben Goldscheider horn)
Richard Baker (conductor)
Recorded at Stapleford Granary, Cambridge, 24, 25, 27 November 2018
NMC D254 1CD

Available from Amazon

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