Tuesday 26 October 2021

A series of little gems: Reels, Drones & Jigs from the ensemble Perpetuo

Reels, Drones & Jigs; Perpetuo; Champs Hill Records

Reels, Drones & Jigs
; Perpetuo; Champs Hill Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 October 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A delightful and imaginative programme of shorter contemporary pieces, all with a folk-inspired element with Scots and Irish dance featuring strongly

This latest disc from the ensemble Perpetuo on the Champs Hill label is intriguingly entitled Reels, Drones & Jigs consists of 12 short(ish) pieces based variously on traditional music, with a preponderance using Scots and Irish music, by an admirably wide range of composers, Ailie Robertson, Aidan O'Rourke, Alasdair Nicolson, David Fenessy, Donald Grant, Judith Weir, Adrian Sutton, James MacMillan, Peter Maxwell Davies, David Matthews, Melinda Maxwell and Cecilia McDowall. Perpetuo, founded by oboist James Turnbull in 2013, is a flexible ensemble which performs traditional and contemporary chamber music, here featuring Fenella Humphreys (violin), Andrew Berridge (viola), Cara Berridge (cello), Lindsey Ellis (flute/piccolo), James Turnbull (oboe/cor anglais), Sara Sarvamaa (clarinet/bass clarinet), David Horwich (French horn), Eanna Monaghan (bassoon) and Libby Burgess (piano).

The first five works, all for string trio, were all commissioned by Perpetuo, and performed by them at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney in 2018. First comes The Black Pearl by harpist/composer Ailie Robertson, in which a rhythmic figure acquires fragments of melodies which hint at Scottish traditional music, gradually generating complexity and excitement. Fiddler and composer Aidan O'Rourke started West Highland style fiddling at an early age. His Canongate is named for the Edinburgh street, and seems to start as a misty dawn leading into a wonderfully melodic and evocative piece, with a lovely mellow tune on the viola. The third piece is by Alastair Nicolson, who became artistic director of the St Magnus Festival following the death of its founder and his friend, Peter Maxwell Davies. The Insomniac's Jig (or Ms Humphrey's Lilt) is an evocation of the apocryphal idea behind Bach's Goldberg Variations, that they were written for a sleepless aristocrat. Only here the rhythmic repeated chords, sharp rhythms and uneven phrase lengths are bound to set toes and more tapping. David Fenessy's An open field (come closer, come closer) uses string textures and timbres to atmospheric effect, out of these arise motifs and almost-folk-melodies which disappear almost as quickly. The final work in this group is Taladh by Donald Grant. Grant is both a folk-fiddler and violinist in the Elias String Quartet, and Taladh is the Gaelic for lullaby. Here silence is almost as important as music, a sighing motif at the opening develops into a haunting, folk-style melody which after each phrase is in no rush to hurry on.

Judith Weir's Airs from Another Planet was written in 1986 and inspired by Weir's reading about the idea of preparing people to live on Mars by sending them to a remote Scottish island to test compatibility! It is her idea of a set of Scottish dances, 'Strathspey & Reel', 'Traditional Air', 'Jig', 'Bagpipe Air, with Drones' after several generations on Mars, the originals almost but not quite lost, and written for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon. The sound world is distinctive and imaginative, with the opening movement almost having a setting-the-scene feel and only gradually does a regular rhythm start, though the hints of Scots traditional dances are far away indeed. The second movement is almost stark in its sonorities, but with a tune weaving its way through the texture. 'Jig' is wonderfully bright and skittery whilst the final movement has some imaginative textures for high piano which lead into something rather dancier.

Adrian Sutton is perhaps best known for his scores for the National Theatre (including War Horse, see my interview with Adrian). Here his Spring Masque is for violin and viola, a joyful piece which seems to teeter between a reel and a hoe-down with wonderful energy. James MacMillan's Untold is for flute, cor anglais, clarinet, French horn and bassoon, and was written in 1987 for the Flaxton Ensemble, commissioned by the Ayr Arts Guild. It draws its material from a traditional Irish love song, yet also is full of imaginative writing along with a style of motif very much associated with MacMillan.

Peter Maxwell Davies' Midhouse Air was written in 1996, again for violin and viola. It starts in hauntingly melancholy fashion, but then launches into a wonderfully up-tempo reel, again with hints of the hoe-down. David Matthews' A Song for Max was written in the year of Maxwell Davies' death and uses the same scoring as Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, a reference to the importance the work had to Maxwell Davies. We begin with a folk-ish melody on flute (in fact invented by Matthews), which develops and is restated with increasing complexity and at a couple of moments, sounding convincingly Max-ian. The work was written for the composer's memorial concert at Kings Place in November 2016.

Melinda Maxwell is a composer and oboist and her Pibroch for oboe and cello was written in 1981. It starts with solo oboe, inspired by the pibroch whose form uses theme and variations. Then the oboe is joined by drones from the bass, and the textures both evoke the bagpipe and yet seem to shy away from it. A wonderfully intriguing piece.

The final work on the disc is Cecilia McDowall's Subject to the Weather, written for the 2010 Presteigne Festival and incorporating both Welsh folksong (The Blackbird) and S.S. Wesley's hymn usually sung to the words 'The Church's one foundation', inspired by a place in Powys were the local Methodist minister in the 1880s created a cooperative enterprise to alleviate poverty and deprivation. The result proves to be an intriguing and engaging mix, for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon.

This is a wonderfully engaging and imaginative disc, and certainly a wonderfully lively take on the idea of a piece based on traditional music. Moving between the melancholy and the toe-tapping, the pieces are a series of little gems, all beautifully played.

Ailie Robertson - The Black Pearl
Aidan O'Rourke - Canongate
Alasdair Nicolson - The Insomniac's Jig (or Ms. Humphreys' Lilt)
David Fenessy - An Open Field (Come Closer, Come Closer)
Donald Grant - Taladh
Judith Weir - Airs from Another Planet
Adrian Sutton - Spring Masque
James MacMillan - Untold
Peter Maxwell Davies - Midhouse Air
David Matthews - A Song for Max
Melinda Maxwell - Pibroch
Cecilia McDowall - Subject to the Weather
Perpetuo - Fenella Humphreys (violin), Andrew Berridge (viola), Cara Berridge (cello), Lindsey Ellis (flute/piccolo), James Turnbull (oboe/cor anglais), Sara Sarvamaa (clarinet/bass clarinet), David Horwich (French horn), Eanna Monaghan (bassoon), Libby Burgess (piano)
Recorded at the Music Room, Champs Hill, 21-23 January 2019

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