Monday 4 May 2020

Time, Space and Change: new works by Ed Hughes from metier

Ed Hughes Cuckmere: A Portrait, Sinfonia; Orchestra of Sound and Light, New Music Players, Ed Hughes, Nicholas Smith; metier
Ed Hughes Cuckmere: A Portrait, Sinfonia; Orchestra of Sound and Light, New Music Players, Ed Hughes, Nicholas Smith; metier
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 May 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Two recent major works by composer Ed Hughes take inspiration from the landscape of the River Cuckmere, and from the music of the past

Time, Space and Change is a disc of three large-scale pieces by composer Ed Hughes on Divine Art's metier label. The disc includes two of Hughes' recent orchestral scores, Cuckmere: A Portrait performed by the Orchestra of Sound and Light conducted by the composer, and Sinfonia, performed by the New Music Players conducted by Nicholas Smith. In between there is Hughes' early work, Media Vita performed by the New Music Players Piano Trio, Susanne Stanzeleit (violin), Joe Giddey (cello) and Richard Casey (piano).

The disc opens with Cuckmere: A Portrait, an eight movement suite from 2016-18 which was originally written as a live score for a film. Hughes studied with Michael Finnissy and Robin Holloway, and is now Professor of Composition at the University of Sussex. He has a great interest in music for film and has written scores for silent films by Sergei Eisenstein and Yasujiro Ozu.  Cesca Eaton's film Cuckmere: A Portrait, with aerial photography by Fergus Kenney and Hughes score, was commissioned for live cinema performance at the Brighton Festival. Depicting a year in the life of the River Cuckmere, it uses the combination of music and moving images to create a poetic, contemporary silent film.
Though Hughes' score is in eight movements, an electronic prelude and three electronic interludes connect four main movements, the result flows seamlessly to create a single fluid whole. Hughes writing is very seductive, and he is adept at creating striking and rather lovely textures. Yet there is a surprising element to the score too, whilst the name suggests English pastoral at its most pastiche, Hughes' writing is more complex than that. Essential tonal, the score is full of little harmonic quirks and Hughes' scoring is redolent of much 20th century French music, so that you can hear distant echoes of Ravel and Poulenc's piano concertos and more in the scoring, though the piece always coheres on its own world.

If you are interested in seeing how music and image combine, then it is possible to watch Cesca Eaton's film on Vimeo, and I would love to be able to see it live.

The middle piece on the programme is the earliest. Dating from 1991 Hughes Media Vita was premiered at the Brighton Festival performed by Michael Finnissy (piano), Charles Mutter (violin) and Zoe Martlew (cello). It was inspired by the large scale respond, Media vita by the early Tudor composer John Sheppard (1515-1558). The music is far edgier than the first piece on the disc, with Hughes revelling in creating a sonic world where each of the three instruments seems to live in its own sound-world. There are hints of the Sheppard, but the work is very much about Hughes' own voice as the three performers seem to explore a new sonic work, moving between quite formal passages and freely rhapsodic moments.

The final work on the disc Sinfonia dates from 2018 and was written for the New Music Players, the ensemble which performs the work on the disc. It is written for large instrumental ensemble, string nonet, single woodwind, trumpet, piano and percussion, and each of its six movements is inspired by music of the past, a series of homages to English music from 1400 to 1600. Again, this isn't pastiche but Hughes uses elements of the old to create something new.

We start with the Agincourt Carol, an anonymous English folk-song with links to the famous battle. The result, filtered through Hughes' ears, is something vigorous and at times visceral, again with the idea of multiple ideas combining simultaneous so the original carol drifts in an out of focus. Next comes a movement based on Stella Celi Extirpavit, a three voice motet by John Cooke (1385-1442) from the Old Hall Manuscript which Hughes expands into something fluid and flowing, definitely contemporary yet with intriguing hints.

The polyphonic motet Veni sancte spiritus by John Dunstaple (1390-1453) is the inspiration for the next movement. Dunstaple uses both the sequence Veni sancte spiritus and the hymn, Veni creator spiritus in his original. Hughes writes a core of diatonic harmonies, inspired by the structure of Dunstaple's piece, overlaid with shifting chromatic lines. This creates the sense of multiple things happening (and of course, Dunstaple's own music was often about multiple ideas presented concurrently), in the Sinfonia's largest movement. In iejunio et fletu is a motet by Thomas Tallis from Cantiones Sacrae (1575) and Hughes makes the inspiration for a movement which is quiet and intense,  yet still full of complex textures woven around the original. Orlando Gibbons' madrigal The Silver Swan is the basis for the next, with a sense of Gibbons' original floating in and out of focus. Finally, In Nomine is inspired not by a particular piece, but by a whole genre of instrumental works composed for viol consort in the 16th and 17th centuries. Here Hughes does not embed fragments within his own music, but uses old techniques on his material to create a movement which is very much a summation of the ideas embedded in this piece, the past refracted through the present with Hughes applying very modern techniques to the older material, and very old techniques to modern material.

The performances from the Orchestra of Sound and Light, and from the New Music Players are uniformly excellent. This disc forms an approachable introduction to the composer's music, with two large scale pieces inspired by pre-existing material, one the visual images of the film and the other Tudor music, thus providing the new listener with a variety of ways into Hughes' complex, seductive and fascinating sound world.

CUCKMERE: session 16 June 2017 (extract) from Ed Hughes on Vimeo.

Ed Hughes (born 1968) - Cuckmere: A Portrait (2016-18) [30:31]
Ed Hughes - Media Vita (1991)
Ed Hughes - Sinfonia (2018)
Orchestra of Sound and Light
Ed Hughes (conductor)
New Music Players Piano Trio (Susanne Stanzeleit - violin, Joe Giddey - cello, Richard Casey - paino)
New Music Players
Nicholas Smith (conductor)
metier MSC 28597 1CD [71.35]

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