Thursday 22 October 2020

From the whole earth dancing to a day in hell: chamber music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad

The Whole Earth Dances - Cheryl Frances Hoad; Champs Hill Records

The Whole Earth Dances
- Cheryl Frances Hoad; Champs Hill Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 October 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Chamber music spanning 20 years in what feels like a very personal disc from composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad

The Whole Earth Dances is the third disc of Cheryl Frances-Hoad's music to appear on Champs Hill Records, a suitable 40th birthday present which has something of a retrospective feel as the disc includes music ranging from the title track, The Whole Earth Dances written in 2016 to The Prophecy written in 1998, with performed by The Schubert Ensemble, the Gildas Quartet, Rozenn Le Trionnaire, Francesca Barritt, Sholto Kynoch, David Cohen, Daniel Grimwood, Rebecca Gilliver, Sophia Rahman, Yshani Perinpanayagam, Sara Minelli and Fenella Humphreys. The music on the disc features chamber music in a variety of forms from duos to large-scale ensembles, but perhaps significantly none has a traditional title.

The disc begins with The Whole Earth Dances a quintet performed by the Schubert Ensemble (William Howard, piano, Simon Blendis, violin, Douglas Paterson, viola, Jan Slmon, cello, Peter Buckoke, double bass). Using the same forces as Schubert's Trout Quintet, the work was commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble as a companion piece and premiered by them at the Spitalfields Music Festival in 2016. The work is inspired by the landscape around Frances-Hoad's house, and by the poetry of Ted Hughes. It is a single movement work divided into five continuous parts, thistles, ferns, thistles, ferns, thistles! Whilst the harmonic language is different, the way Frances-Hoad uses the strings playing long lyrical (sometimes unison) lines and has the piano reverberating against them rather reminded me of Messiaen in his Quartet for the End of Time. And Frances-Hoad's music has a certain rhapsodic, transcendental feel which seems to take it beyond mere descriptions of the countryside into another realm.

Cloud Movements for clarinet, violin and piano was commissioned by the Park Lane Group and premiered by Ensemble Matisse in 2015. Here it is played by Rozanne Le Trionnaire, clarinet, Francesca Barritt, violin, Sholto Kynoch, piano. In five short movements (slow, fast, slow, fast, slow), it was inspired partly by watching clouds in Tuscany on her honeymoon, and partly by scientific writings about geoengineering practices for solar radiation management! The two faster movements are strikingly imaginative canons, whilst the slower ones are more evocative, and again I heard hints of Messiaen in the writing. 

Songs and Dances for cello and piano was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and premiered by Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood in 2011. Here it is played by David Cohen, cello, and Daniel Grimwood, piano. In three movements, slow, fast, slow, it is written with the idea of writing song for the cello with a set of dances in the middle as the faster movement. The first is one long intense line for the cello, the second starts from the cello dancing over a perkily rhythmic piano and the third turns quite intense.

With The Prophecy for cello and piano we move somewhat further back in time as the work was written in 1998 commissioned by Ralph Kirshbaum for the RNCM Manchester International Cello Festival. Here it is played by Rebecca Gilliver, cello, and Sophia Rahman, piano. It is a long single movement work, inspired by a description of a man with schizophrenia who was petrified of death because of the eternal life that he 'knew' would follow, unable to differentiate between now and a possible future. By turns lyrical and intense, with moments of incessant rhythms, the piece is a devastating single outpouring which forms a nearly 15 minute tour de force.

Game On written in 2015 was designed for Yshani Perinpanayagam and combines Frances-Hoad's piano writing with the sound-track of a 1987 game on a Commodore 64 XOR! Frances-Hoad was inspired not just by the game, but by game theory and by the presence of technology in modern-day life. The long third movement is very much a post-apocalyptic lament, preceded by two shorter movements, the first inspired by Game theory, the second's title says it all 'Robots Will Rule the World'. Frances-Hoad makes the first movement intriguingly wry, embedding the perky sound of the computer into her own sound world, whilst the second is more intense and sounds as if it came out of the BBC Radiophonic workshop! The third movement has a powerful piano solo over the repeated rhythmic figures on the computer, creating a rather desolate feel.

The title for Pay Close Attention comes from The Prodigy's 1992 album, Experience, which subliminally affected Frances-Hoad at the time (she was listening to it in the gym). Written for piano and string trio, it was premiered in 2011 by students of the Junior Royal Academy, and is played here by Yshani Perinpanayagam and members of the Gildas Quartet. It is short, engaging and highly rhythmic, certainly music to make you run faster!

Violinist Fenella Humphreys commissioned Mazurka for violin and piano in 2014, and she premiered it in 2015. Here she plays it accompanied by Sholto Kynoch. Loosely inspired by Sibelius it is a short and rhythmic with lots of delightfully uneven phrase lengths and accented rhythms on different beats, resulting in a feeling of a mazurka being put through a mangle.

Medea for solo flute was premiered by Sara Minelli in 2019 though the work started out in 2007 (for a competition that it did not win). It is inspired by Euripedes' Medea and presents us with a long flute monologue, often thoughtful but with jagged moments of emotion cutting through. But overall, you feel that whilst Frances-Hoad does not necessarily condone Medea, she understands the woman and does not condemn.

The final work on the disc was premiered by the Dante Quartet at the Cheltenham Festival in 2008. My Day in Hell is inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. Never having read the work, Frances-Hoad listened to the 13-hour audiobook (during a bout of 'flu) before writing this rather intense single-movement work. Rather than being descriptive of Dante's vision of hell, Frances-Hoad is inspired by his numerology! The string writing seems to sometimes evoke the very particular sound of British string writing from the 1950s, and intriguing link and no bad one. The result is highly effective and affecting.

The booklet notes include personal information from Frances-Hoad about how each of the pieces came about, and the whole programme has the feel of being carefully thought about even to the extent of harmonic movement between works. All the works on the disc are commissions, but Frances-Hoad's careful approach to programming means that the disc does build to a satisfying programme with the shorter pieces being set off by some really meaty and gritty bigger ones. The performances throughout are profoundly satisfying.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad (born 1980) - The Whole Earth Dances
Cheryl Frances-Hoad - Cloud Movements
Cheryl Frances-Hoad - Songs and Dances
Cheryl Frances-Hoad - The Prophecy
Cheryl Frances-Hoad - Game On
Cheryl Frances-Hoad - Pay Close Attention
Cheryl Frances-Hoad - Mazurka
Cheryl Frances-Hoad - Medea
Cheryl Frances-Hoad - My Day in Hell
The Schubert Ensemble (William Howard - piano, Simon Blendis - violin, Douglas Paterson - viola, Jan Salmon - cello, Peter Buckoke - double bass)
Rozenn Le Trionnaire - clarinet
Francesca Barritt - violin
Sholto Kynoch - piano
David Cohen - cello
Daniel Grimwood - piano
Rebecca Gilliver - cello
Sophia Rahman - piano
Yshani Perinpanayagam - piano and Commodore 64
Fenella Humphreys - violin
Sara Minelli - flute
Gildas Quartet (Christopher Jones, Gemma Sharples, Kay Stephen - viola, Anna Menzies - cello)

Recorded 1/5/2015, 13/3/2017, 3-5/5/2017

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