The Continuum Ensemble has released a new CD showcasing the work of British composers Kenneth Hesketh and Richard Causton. Mary Bevan, Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Alexander Szram feature as guest artists. I’ve reviewed some of the performers before (here and here). It’s nice to listen to their fine work again and better still to hear them alongside the larger body of the Continuum Ensemble. In fact, one of the recording’s strongest recommendations is the constant shift between solo, chamber and larger ensemble pieces, showing the composers and the performers in different lights.
The CD opens with its title track, Hesketh’s A Land so Luminous. It’s a curious work. The violin and piano quickly establish a kind of stasis. Notes are reiterated but seem to hang in mid air. Gradually more material emerges, revealed in building cascades of pitches. The cascades give way to an insistent, pestering violin line, which dominates a delicate and fragmented piano backdrop. In many ways it’s an unremarkable opening, and the nature of the soon skittish violin risks being over-bearing. Hesketh skilfully sidesteps the problem by allowing the piano to come forward and having the violin change to pizzicato sounds.
The music feels as though it’s comprised of tiny fragments, like countless grains of sand which, en masse, coalesce into subtle large-scale shapes. Indeed, everything unfolds like slowly shifting dunes manipulated by capricious winds. Sometimes grains are whipped into a frenzy, sometimes the surface seems to creep along in shimmering waves, sometimes entire chunks slide away and disintegrate. By the end, the winds have calmed and the sands are still. One tiny grain catches the sun, casting light of blinding intensity straight towards us. Instinctively, we turn our head and close our eyes. The music ends.
I have to keep reminding myself that only two instruments play in this piece. Violin and piano weave and dive around each other, jumping quickly from one sonority to another. These are not easy parts to play. Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Aleksander Szram do a masterful job of making the music sound effortless.
In many ways the opening track is an allegory for the experience of the disc as a whole. There are many shifts of tone, style and magnification. Sometimes the pieces beg you to listen to small details, at others you benefit from broad-brush impressions. As a holistic experience, there’s a risk of disorientation, certainly on first hearing, but time spent listening to the works again reveals a dynamic programme well executed.
Hesketh’s Cautionary Tales and Netsuke are complimentary works, the former extracting music from the latter. Both consist of narrative-driven tableaux as varied as they are colourful. Conductor-pianist Philip Headlam explains that Hesketh’s music seeks ‘expansive line of form and discursive figuration’. In Cautionary Tales and particularly in Netsuke, where Hesketh has more performers at his disposal, it’s clear the composer’s grand sense of form and rich narrative diversions extend to the realm of instrumental colour, over which he has total command.
As diversions go, IMMH for solo cellist is notably anomalous among the surrounding pieces. Having established a fairly clear idea of what Hesketh’s music is and does, we’re presented with something more meditative – shamanistic if you believe the programme note. Performer Joseph Spooner is asked to play his cello, sing and tap the body of his instrument. These aren’t exactly groundbreaking requests in the current milieu of contemporary music, but they stand apart from the more traditional techniques deployed in the other Hesketh pieces on this CD.
The extension of the composer’s language here comes across as a bit alien – it feels less comfortably written somehow, though only marginally. That hint of insecurity adds a thrilling dimension not heard in the other works presented. I find it fascinating, precisely because it extends the more traditional technique of Cautionary Tales, Netsuke and A Land So Luminous, rather than trying to do something consciously ‘new’ or quirky. There are slight hints of Boulez, Ligeti and even Barrett in places, but the language remains unmistakably Hesketh’s. Thankfully, he isn’t trying to imitate well-known heavyweights. I’m not suggesting Hesketh is a second-rate composer. Rather, I applaud him for not aping incredibly distinctive voices. Many composers fall into that trap, either as a result of imitating their heroes or trying to piggyback on styles that have proven to have both currency and ‘edge’. That way pallid ‘wannabe’ music lies.
The opening of Richard Causton’s Threnody establishes a sparse, but beautiful sonic landscape, which simultaneously suggests a vast, dusk-lit wasteland and a deeply intimate personal cocoon. It’s really quite something. In Threnody Causton’s compositional voice excels. The performance by clarinettists Marie Lloyd and Sarah Thurlow, soprano Mary Bevan and pianist Philip Headlam is exemplary. The dark tone could easily be turned into something trite and caricatured. Likewise the climax could easily end up over-egged. Not so here. The sombre tone of Tsvetayeva’s poem is perfectly captured by the entire ensemble, as if they all speak with one slowly resigning voice. Mary Bevan’s delivery in particular is carefully measured but rich with expressive depth.
The brief flute piece Sleep is a fantastic companion to Threnody. Both take their cue from poetry, but in Sleep the words are silent. In fact, Sleep demonstrates much more compositional command than Threnody, purely because its entire expressive arc is conveyed with the sound of a single instrument (I still prefer the earlier work, but I admire the skill here). The intimate relationship between flute and breath helps give the music an almost sung human quality, but flautist Lisa Nelsen is careful to remain faithful to her medium.
I wasn’t convinced by Rituals of Hunting and Blooding. The cat-and-mouse chase in the first movement jumps between slabs of instrumental texture with little respite and too much predictability. The faux-jazz style, which has become a contemporary music language of its own, left me feeling a bit bewildered. Where did it come from? It sounds like Turnage or Torke, only less compelling. The insistent, relentless march of the music, which is fundamental to its apparent objective, doesn’t work as well as, say, Górecki’s Kleines Requiem für eine Polka. The performers do their best, but there isn’t space in the part writing for them to give the music enough expressive or dramatic contour. It just kind of sits there, yelling at you in a semi-jazzy way. The second movement, which is much more listenable, has an air of slow, quiet Bernstein. It’s actually quite serene in places. It doesn’t match the simple, expressive beauty of Threnody, but it has its own charm.
In Headlam’s liner notes, he describes Causton’s music as being more terse and singular in its expression than Hesketh’s. That’s certainly true of all the other pieces of Causton’s on this recording. Perhaps in Rituals of Hunting and Blooding the quasi narrative journey of the first movement, wildly juxtaposed with the second, undermines the very essence of the composer’s style. In any case, I found myself so frustrated by the opener, the follow-up was somewhat overshadowed.
Causton’s two solo piano works, played very tenderly by Douglas Finch, directly reference music of days gone by. Non Mi Comporto Male gradually reveals Fats Waller at its foundations. Night Piece is less a slow reveal of Mozart and more a subtle, fragmented embellishment of the revered Austrian’s Clarinet Concerto. In both cases the identity of the quoted composers is a little stronger than Causton’s, but probably more so in Non Mi Comporto Male. They’re both very beautiful sounding works, helped enormously by the sensitive touch of Finch, but after a while I found myself wanting to hear the Waller and the Mozart. To be fair, that feeling is stronger when I listen to the whole CD, bringing my frustrations with Rituals of Hunting and Blooding into my subsequent listening experience. Enjoying Night Piece and Non Mi Comporto Male in isolation works much better!
Overall, the pairing of Hesketh and Causton is an interesting one. I would happily see Rituals of Hunting and Blooding dropped from the programme, probably more for reasons of personal taste than anything else. It’s not a badly written piece, but it doesn’t show Causton in a favourable light, nor does it allow the Continuum Ensemble (with Headlam commanding the baton) to perform at their best. You only have to listen to Hesketh’s Netsuke to hear how gloriously expressive ensemble and conductor can be as a team.
A Land so Luminous is available on the Prima Facie label.