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Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Tweeting about Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Ran (1985)

Some Tweets with comparisons of Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Ran (1985)


More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


25 May


These Tweets contain some casual observations, finding parallels between the various worlds of Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) (1988) (for Studio Ghibli) and Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985)


Ran screened at The Arts Picturehouse (@CamPicturehouse), Cambridge, at 1.00 p.m. on Sunday 22 May 2016 (as a Sunday Classic), and Grave of the Fireflies at 9.00 p.m. on Wednesday 25 May (as part of Studio Ghibli Forever)














Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 20 May 2016

A Nupe Ohm : An Englishman in Cambridge

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


20 May, Post-script added 28 May


An Englishman in Cambridge


When there are looks,
Or stares,
Of dread disapproval,


One wonders when,
Or where,
These people grew up -


Or failed
To grow up -
That it seems,


To them,
That blokes can't have
Long hair



© Belston Night Works 2016




Post-script:


On being a shit (Part I) :




On being a shit (Part II) :





Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Phrenology with Phronesis (work in progress) : Watch yourself when the (cross-)rhythms kick in !

This is a review of a gig given by Phronesis at The Stables, Wavendon, MK

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


18 May


This is a review of a gig given by Phronesis at The Stables, Wavendon, Milton Keynes, on Wednesday 18 May 2016 at 8.00 p.m.



Personnel (in surname order) :

* Anton Eger (drums)

* Jasper Høiby (db)

* Ivo Neame (pf)



This posting has been prepared from review-notes, made consistently with having to take them within blank spaces on Saffron Screen’s (@Saffronscreen’s) beautifully printed May / June programme, since a night off / out turned into a busman’s holiday… (One’s own fault, for going to The Stables (@stablesmk) and not realizing that wanting to write a review was inevitable - and, also, that its proportions would balloon beyond 'a mere sketch' of a review, which was intended 'to give the flavour' !)





First set¹ :

1. Song For The Lost Nomads

2. 67,000 mph

3. A Silver Moon

4. OK Chorale

5. Stillness




By anyone’s standards, (1) ‘Song For The Lost Nomads’ was a pretty good opener : one might have been forgiven, at the very outset, for thinking that Jasper Høiby was just quietly touching the strings of his bass, as if to check, as string-players quietly do, that it was in tune (his is a standard double-bass with a pick-up²) :

Except that he was looking across to Anton Eger (on drums), with whom he had less need to tune than with Ivo Neame (piano)… [One is reminded of Ravi Shankar famously having said, at The Concert for Bangladesh, If you like our tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.]


Rather than with apparent tuning of any kind, (2) ‘67,000 mph’ had, if not a militaristic drum solo to start, then, at least, one that one sounded to be militarily informed. As one was to realize, from hearing the three members of Phronesis, both of the other instruments have their percussive aspect, and they rejoice in using it (please see below). Not that, just as Høiby later tapped out some rhythms on his bass’ case, one cannot, say, use the opening and closing of the valves on a tenor sax as an effect, but bass-strings, even when bowed (one can bounce the bow), can more easily lend themselves to relatively pitch-neutral sounding (and one need only look to Igor Stravinsky, or Steve Reich, for piano-tones that are embedded within ensembles).


For, Phronesis clearly does, at times, have a principle in working out an approach to compositions that uses blocks, whether of sections within the number, or bars over which it will increase or abate intensity and or tempi, and thus using the capacity of all players for ‘patterning’ the material in this way is an important aspect of the whole.

In (3) A Silver Moon, however, they perhaps felt a little more self conscious, at first, when introducing more elements of free jazz ? Before one felt that they had ‘got into’ the item, the impression was given of being a little more at a remove, and which was heightened by the seeming classical allusions as the theme became exposed. Of course, in jazz that deserves the name, it is by being improvisatory, and needing to be open to running risks, that it is alive (one does not stoop to referring explicitly to a jazz-gig where members of an ensemble around the size of a quintet exclusively played off the page), and, appreciating as much, it was fine that this central part of the set had made a little less impact.


No matter, as pianist Ivo Neame opened (4) ‘OK Chorale’, and we were into another of Phronesis’ elongated treatments, originating with his patterned (or repetitive) figurations [if there is a magic in styling it ‘Ok’, apologies to Jasper H. for having put the title into house-style] : unlike with a jazz-standard (or if one already knew the band’s discography or its members’ pedigrees), one is not – as is sometimes the case (Brad Mehldau maybe, or, more obviously, Keith Jarrett with his long-standing Standards partners) – waiting for the melody to emerge from where it has been submerged (though there is some element of that to Phronesis, too), but, as one might with formal sonata-form writing, recognizing / knowing the material that we heard earlier when it recurs.

That is as may be, but there had been a touch of holding back, from the strength in and of the first two items, in the third, and now we knew that the trio was really into it. Not, of course, just because we had a rocking, head-banging drummer before us in Anton Eger, but rather that, as we listened, and as he interleaved mini drum-solos into the texture, seeing him, and his face and expression, confirmed to us that he was on a feed-back loop with us – however that works for performers, be it seeing nods, hearing gasps or sighs, or perhaps even a sway in the front row... (It is not, one knows, only at the end, when the length and amount of applause is longer for this item than for its predecessor, that both we, amongst our fellows, and the performers come to grasp whatever might be what Russell Hoban (@russellhobanorg) liked to call the limited-consensus reality [apologies, Russ, if you likewise did not hyphenate...].)


The set closed with (5), in which Phronesis felt most free of all, and we heard Jasper H. bow his bass, even sawing with it at times, and then some low picked notes, which sounded very deep, as well as next going extremely high.

As we proceeded, perhaps another classical allusion from Ivo N., some strummed bass, and then what looked like – from the front – Anton E., playing his drum-kit with a pair of dinner-knives : metallic, anyway, and bringing that kind of timbre to cymbals and stretched surfaces alike, but just as part of that bewildering ‘build of sound’ that is Phronesis at its best, with symphonic proportions summoned by three instrumentalists.


They were lucky that we let them off the stage to take a break, though they had clearly taken much pleasure in playing (and so any need for rest came after a refreshing kind of work-out) !






Second set¹ :

6. Urban Control

7. Phraternal

8. Behind Bars

9. Kite For Seamus

10. Rabat

11. Just 4 Now



[...]



More to come soon...

Encore :



[...]



End-notes

¹ Set-lists by kind courtesy of Jasper Høiby of Phronesis (@phronesismusic). However, when the second set gets written up, there was clearly a segue that was wrongly interpreted (for reviewing purposes) as a change of mood / tempo of the sections within a number…

² But no ‘sock’, attached to the side, in which to stow the bow, which instead rested handily on the small stand by his right. One gathered that bowing the bass has come relatively recently - and also that its player does not play in a symphony orchestra (almost necessarily, the latter fact came before the former.)

(As agreed afterwards, such devices to carry the bow not only look like a holster (and how quickly does one need to whip out a bow ?), but they must also affect the sound and performance of the instrument.)




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Britten Sinfonia with Ruby Hughes and Mahan Esfahani : As a brook might ripple ? (review in progress)

This is Part II of a review of Britten Sinfonia with Mahan Esfahani and Ruby Hughes

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


15 May

This is Part II of a review (work in progress) of a concert given by Britten Sinfonia with Mahan Esfahani and Ruby Hughes (standing in for Alice Coote) at Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, on Sunday 15 May 2016 at 3.00 p.m.


[...]


Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) ~ Phaedra (1975), Op. 93

There is so much going on in Benjamin Britten’s Phaedra that one can only give an overview of a live performance, and it even feels to begin very immediately - nigh in media res, as well it might from a composer who worked with the BBC on operas that were broadcast, or even premiered, on t.v.

The text, which was taken, by Britten, from Jean Racine’s verse play Phèdre (originally Phèdre et Hippolyte) in a version by poet Robert Lowell (published in 1961), straightaway, and in just four lines, makes a statement from and on which everything devolves and depends…



For, as if one has to judge, to choose - of course, the setting suggests quite otherwise - between viewing Phaedra as prey (of Aphrodite, revenging herself on Hippolytus, Phaedra's stepson), or as predator (on Hippolytus), the nature of this composition, as with Peter Grimes (1945, Opus 33), is to invite us into the psyche of the outsider, the person with behaviour or desires that others will not (easily) accept.

At the close of the Prologue, at the literally appalling words turned white, we descend to harpsichord (Mahan Esfahani) and single cello (Caroline Dearnley), which are to act as the continuo for words, scoring and vocal that are now no less charged and daring* than when first performed at Aldeburgh Festival in June 1976. For Phaedra, now living before us in the person of Ruby Hughes**, heaps blame for her actions, and attraction to Hippolytus, on Aphrodite :

We hear [of Phaedra’s / narrate her efforts] ‘to calm her wrath’ [i.e. Aphrodite's], and how she tried to do so by flowers and praise, and by building and desiring to decorate a temple, but we come back to the opening and very earthly territory that is Phaedra’s not being able to breathe or speak, and of :

capricious burnings [that] flickered through my bleak
abandoned flesh



Surely Britten, for whom his love for and life with Peter Pears was not all that hidden, nonetheless wished to be as open as, sometimes, some parts of twentieth-century society might have allowed him to be – and, no less than Phaedra being sexually and emotionally drawn to her fiancé’s son (as Hippolytus first is), he must have felt the imprint of the firebrand that is real stigma. Even if, for Phaedra, that way lies – and must lie – condemnation, castigation, banishment and exile, we are given this conflicted conflation of the bodily and the sacred / sacramental in Lowell’s words :

Alas, my hungry open mouth,
thirsting with adoration, tasted drouth ---
Venus resigned her altar to my new lord



In the Presto section (and elsewhere), and although it is the norm in the work for lines to be set ‘straight through’, some lines are repeated. One such place is just after the short sentence My mind whirls, which is at the centre of the third line (and where we first heard a mimetically whirling accompaniment, which is to recur at the end of this section), with the self-ascription Phaedra in all her madness stands before you !

Revisiting words then continues, with lingering over (some of) the words in :

I love you ! Fool, I love you, I adore you !

Yet Phaedra then retreats, into the comparative safety (and asserting the attempted power of human resistance), of, and starting softly, making other claims :

Do not imagine that my mind approved
my first defection, Prince, or that I loved
your youth light-heartedly, and fed my treason
with cowardly compliance, till I lost my reason



As the movement proceeds (though this is truly an undivided work, there is some sort of distinction between passages of sung text and those of recitative), we reach a moment of great and open self-revelation, with Phaedra imagining declaring The wife of Theseus loves Hippolytus !, and it is there that Britten takes us so swiftly from the mood of a processional (the marriage ?) to that of a dirge (pointing to the end of the work ?). That sense of swirling – of Phaedra’s being adrift ? – recurs with ‘Look’ in the first of the next three lines, which (with all their Freudian connectedness as to whether the desired ‘sword’ is a real blade, to kill in fact (and thus for Phaedra to die), or the metaphorical one of covertly desiring Hippolytus’ unlawful penetration) close this section*** :

See, Prince ! Look, this monster, ravenous
for her execution, will not flinch.
I want your sword’s spasmodic final inch.



Here, however, Britten does break the flow, and with a percussive interlude that reminds us that Racine’s world of the tragic originates in that of the Greece of Sophocles or Euripides (and also, of course, that the dramatist’s five-act play has been compressed into something of the order of one-tenth of its stage-time). (In her programme-notes, Jo Kirkbride remarks that the scoring of ‘the uncommon ensemble [sc. string-band plus percussion and timpani] presents a stark texture in which strings and percussion do not blend, but jar in a way that underpins the rawness of Phaedra’s fate’.)

When the more contemporary time of the composer did feel to come back in, maybe to greet us anew, it was with the pizzicato of Caroline Dearnley on cello, which grew to resemble to the sound of the guitar (or banjo). The succeeding passage of recitative also reflects the fact that Time has passed by (and it is maybe arguable that, overall, the five sections of the work - Prologue / recitative / Presto / recitative / Adagio - reflect the five-act structure of Racine’s Phèdre), since Phaedra, at the start of this second recitative, is remarking :

Oh Gods of wrath,
how far I’ve travelled on my dangerous path !
I go to meet my husband ; at his side
will stand Hippolytus
.



In the third, broken line, Ruby Hughes gave an anguished feel in the caesuræ that are either side of the telling words at his side, for – ravelled up in this trinity of monosyllables – is much more than the more florid / flowery, romantic summary with which, maybe persuading us (maybe herself ?), Phaedra first presented the genesis of her triangular story of Theseus, Hippolytus, and herself :

The son is in relation to the father, as evidenced by literally being at his side, and also by virtue of kinship (i.e. psychically). As Theseus’ wife, however (and as Phaedra so well knows), she 'should’ likewise be there, by Theseus’ side – whereas, in fact, her mental need to be at Hippolytus’ side [sc. in his bed / arms] has become so strong, present and distressing to her that, as the recitative progresses, she fears her powers of pretence, and, in all this and most of all, fears herself. (Though some progress, this, as rather one of violent disintegration (and distrust)...)


It seemed fitting to choose to talk, here (at the centre of the piece), about what Ruby Hughes (@rubyvoce) showed us in Phaedra, both woman and role – as in the first half (review to come), she stepped onto the stage (with a little due delay), and did not appear to need (even if appearances can deceive...) to do more, when arrived, than ‘immerse herself in’, as the case might be, the music of the Sinfonia, or instrumental introduction. (A matter equally pertinent to how, in this venue, we could see Robin Blaze ‘acclimatize to’, or ‘prepare for’, a performance of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, or Bach’s Cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170.)


This was a performance that brought passion and a meaningful sense of madness (very far from the stock and once-obligatory ‘mad scene’ in operatic tradition), coupled with personal humility, gratitude and even sacrifice (as it cannot be easy to become Phaedra - just, or even just, for fifteen minutes). Phaedra herself may remind us that Theseus’ life was also wedded with that of Medea [told in Handel's Teseo, and where, not for the first time, Theseus was playing with others' hearts], in the product of whose art - almost ironically ? - Phaedra is to find her own peace.

So, when she paced that phrase at his side (which was referred to earlier, three paragraphs above), within the space that she helped create for it (in partnership with Britten, Lowell, Racine), it was not staccato, but was, equally, not legato, but accented : likewise, in the following line, we had a telling pause – where ‘telling’ for the audience means, of course, emotionally ripping for Phaedra – just after she says the name Hippolytus again (once more, in claustrophobic proximity to referring to Theseus) :

I go to meet my husband ; at his side
will stand Hippolytus.



Of course, we must acknowledge the latency in Britten's setting, and electing to set, the recitative****, and doing so alongside his paring of the text of Lowell’s translation in a short-form treatment (which in no way could be seen to substitute for reading, or hearing, what Racine wanted to tell us of Phaedra – or Lowell of Racine).

However, the implied analogy with film here may be a useful one, in thinking of the choices that Britten made in preparing the libretto : the parallel is with what a writer-director might undertake, first in adapting a literary work as a film's screenplay, and then, with the help, skill and insight of a trusted editor, crafting cinema from the footage that he or she has shot in production.

A touch of this approach is the emphasis inherent in, and given to, the phrase The very dust (which opens the quotation below) – we almost had the feeling that, not for the last time (please see the next paragraph), another trio of words lets us hear Phaedra, guiltily disgusted by her shared human nature, and by the tradition of our origins in the dust (i.e. mankind created from clay, e.g. in - amongst other religious accounts - Genesis 2 : 7) :

The very dust rises to disabuse
my husband – to defame me and accuse !



In one passage, there was demonstrated a very strong connection between Phaedra and the principal cello-part, played by Caroline Dearnley, and which one realized as much by exact observation as by identifying what one was hearing : Britten's having her play both tremolo (bow hand) and vibrato (hand on the finger-board) at once. (Likewise, when Phaedra forms the resolve from which everything else proceeds, not to live is another strong group of sounds, underlined by Dearnley having to produce a continuous drone.)


In the transition from recitative to the Adagio (and from the simplicity of the harpsichord-and-cello continuo), one effect with which we might notice that Britten characterizes Phaedra’s decisiveness is how, by modulating up, and up, but adding in, at the same time, first one cello, then both, and instrument by instrument, until he builds up to full, undivided forces.

Appropriate, to wind up like a spring in this way, because hers is a fait accompli - in the vein of, but reversing, D.O.A. [also Dead on Arrival] (1950). [Also, Britten's last chamber opera, in 1954, had been The Turn of the Screw.]



From her selected position of safety (in a sense, she was always only talking to us, in and of her life), Phaedra is now actually launching herself forward : giving Theseus a confessional story, but coupled with the impossibility of his acting on it (as Medea, too, did ?).

At the centre of this passage of text, we were to come, with all its suggestiveness, to a massive climax on the words noble son’. It was then, in the emptiness of the hiatus that succeeded it, where - if we still, somehow, ‘felt outside’ this story - we were to find ourselves uncomfortable in our own company. (Phaedra, who has been so present to us, momentarily seems absent from our side ?)


By the time of the calmness that, rapt, we were also disquietingly to feel more and more strongly, and locate most in Phaedra’s final half-dozen lines of the Adagio, we fully realized, and so felt : this is her way of finding the peace, in herself and in the situation, that had eluded her before.

On such occasions, no one wants to break the silence (and yet perhaps it was broken too soon), which shows the interpretative power of this soprano (@rubyvoce) and this ensemble (@BrittenSinfonia) with Britten’s towering skill of setting texts that matter : music and all its makers, very alive to possibility !





End-notes

* Even when one has heard the work before : Britten Sinfonia performed it, a handful of years back, at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (@WestRoadCH).

** Childishly, one cannot help revelling in the fact that, when her name is not pronounced clearly on radio, it does sound rather like Scooby-Doo… !

*** From the fifth line onwards (starting Do not imagine, and quoted above), we have text in which Phaedra imagines apostrophizing Theseus. (Yet, by the time of the Adagio at the end of the work, she will be addressing him, and absolving Hippolytus, in the act of undergoing her chosen death.)

**** Where, of course, the continuo players are necessarily led by, and so closely attendant upon, the way in which the vocal soloist chooses to interpret the individual words and phrases of the libretto of the recitative – by phrasing, accent, tone, timbre, etc.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Laputa : Evoking and engaging with our sense of wonder

This is an accreting review of Laputa : Castle in the Sky (1986)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


11 May

This is an accreting review of Laputa : Castle in the Sky (Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta) (1986)




Film references (identifying other films directed by Hayao Miyazaki¹) :

* Akira (1988)

* Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro) (2004) [Hayao M.]

* Jupiter Ascending (2015)

* Princess Mononoke (1997) [Hayao M.]

* Spirited Away (Sento Chihirono kamikakushi) (2001) [Hayao M.]

* The Iron Giant (1999) [based on The Iron Man : A Children's Story in Five Nights, a novel by Ted Hughes, first published in 1968]



* The Matrix (1999)

* The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu) (2013) [Hayao M.]


[...]





[...]


End-notes

¹ The following list is of motifs that will be familiar from these films (it is given non-exhaustively - simply to show that, as directors Wes Anderson or Woody Allen, for example, might have penchants or pet-themes that run through their films, even more so does Miyazaki, almost as if they are, as the case may be, running jokes, or leitmotifs) :

* Appearances / things not being what they seem (e.g. Princess Mononoke)

* Clouds / cloud formations (e.g. The Wind Rises)

* Flowers / blossoms (e.g. Howl’s Moving Castle)

* Flying-machines (e.g. The Wind Rises, and IMDb (@IMDb) lists Miyazaki's short film called Imaginary Flying Machines (2002))

* Gluttony (e.g. Spirited Away)

* Helpful eccentrics / outsiders (e.g. Spirited Away)

* Literary adaptation (e.g. Howl’s Moving Castle and the novel by Diana Wynne Jones)

* Noble blood / nobility in disguise (e.g. Spirited Away)

* Orphans (e.g. The Wind Rises)

* Powerful older women, behaving somewhat boisterously (e.g. Spirited Away)

* Railways (e.g. Spirited Away)

* The Industrial Revolution (in Western Europe) : factories, quarrying and the like (e.g. Princess Mononoke)

* Working / having to work menially to earn one’s keep (e.g. Spirited Away)




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

At Lunch 4 : 'The modes and moods of the human heart' ?

This is a review of Britten Sinfonia in At Lunch 4 on 12 April 2016

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


2 May

This is a review of At Lunch 4, given by Britten Sinfonia at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, on Tuesday 12 April 2016 at 1.00 p.m.



Programme :

1. Béla Bartók (1881-1945) ~ 44 Duos

2. Bryce Dessner (1976-) ~ El Chan

3. Robert Schumann (1810-1856) ~ Piano Quartet



Bartók ~ From 44 Duos (1931), BB104, a selection of five

These are duos for violin and viola, so we welcomed Thomas Gould and Clare Finnimore, respectively, to perform them (the – ever-ascending - position of each number in the whole work is given in parenthesis after the title) :

1. Pillow Dance (14)

2. Hungarian March I (17)

3. Sorrow (28)

4. Bagpipes (36)

5. Pizzicato (43)


Frankly, at this remove from the event (i.e. of the time of the review), one may be imagining that Thomas Gould (@ThomasGouldVLN) said a little – before or after these five items – about the pedadgogic aspect of Bartók’s collecting folk music in the field (recording, notating, etc.) (although there were political, musical, historical ones, too, of course) : hardly uniquely to Bartók, it seems as if these Duos partly serve as graded exercises, in order of difficulty.

Thus, (1) Pillow Dance, a study in rhythm and pattern, contrasted with an atmosphere of the lyrical (tinged with the drunken ?) in the first (2) Hungarian Dance of the whole set – and, at its end, it reminded us of the dance that had preceded it.

Not just numerically at the centre of these five Duos, played standing, was (3) Sorrow. Not unabated sorrow, however, but a weaving together of threnody with its transformation into music – in the persons of viola and violin – and with its emotional, linear and harmonic parts matched so as to sound as wedded.

Over a drone from Finnimore (on viola), we heard Gould’s violin dance in (4) Bagpipes – material used elsewhere by Bartók, in one of his major compositions ? Then the drone ended, and we had an energetic conclusion from the paired players (a form of dance ?). Last, in (5) Pizzicato, we necessarily had that string-effect, but it began in a ‘picked’ form from Finnimore, and with more of a strum from Gould.

Both reminded of the tone and sound of the String Quartets (a little of which we were yet to hear on the evening of Benjamin Grosvenor directs), but also of the banjo. We were to move to a sensation of liveliness balanced against a heavier (or sharper) sound in a number of variations, and, by the close, an interplay of lead instrument from Gould to Finnimore and back. Judged just right, as a curation that was to end here and which had been perfectly executed, this was an excellent start to the programme !





2. Dessner ~ El Chan (2016)

For the rest of At Lunch 4, Caroline Dearnley (cello), and Huw Watkins (piano), joined Finnimore and Gould in two works for piano quartet.

As this contemporary commission progressed (we had been told that El Chan was in seven movements, and principal pianist Huw Watkins (@WatkinsHuw) described it as a beautiful piece¹), its filmic quality came out, and a theory – shared by Tweet below – formed as to its scope and intent…


(I) Against a shimmer of an opening, a very violent pizzicato had been written for Caroline Dearnley – yet very soon, and almost at the other extreme, she brought out a ghostly cello tremolo, and Watkins reached inside the lid of the piano to play some bass-notes directly.

Again to the fore, Dearnley had flurries of notes, before passing back to the piano, and the start of an obsessively repetitive pattern. Slowly, it subsided to a quiet close, and then (II) an equally quiet opening from Watkins, which became a raindrop-like texture. The other players joined it, but in what seemed an uneasy tranquillity, with odd dissonances, to which they added.

As it broadened out, it seemed as though it might give space to some isolated sounds with violin, but instead it closed. Next (III), lively strokes from Clare Finnimore (viola) and Thomas Gould (violin) reminded of Philip Glass, before the sound grew to that of the quartet of players, and subsided - leaving us listening to the sweetness of Gould’s upper string(s), but ending quite hoarsely.

Next (IV), a violin-line that, in a jazzy and non-linear way, felt confused (or conflicted) against those of cello (Caroline Dearnley) and viola, and where – as in cinema – one experienced misdirections as to where the movement was heading. (V) After a minute pause (signalled by communication between Huw Watkins and Thomas Gould), what followed now sounded like John Adams, and felt to be the centre of the piece², with, seemingly, hints of Mexican dance-rhythms, and strongly bowed cello-strokes.

(VI) Piano mumbled (or grumbled ?) as – over a drone from cello and viola – Dessner carefully placed Gould’s violin-line. Soon, a tremolo on the cello passed to the viola, and then a fragmented line moved from Gould to Watkins, becoming an ostinato : we were to hear shimmers, and soft pizzicato tones from Finnimore and Gould. Near the end, there was a quiet period of rumination with a cross-melody, but we were to conclude with a few bars of peals and cascades.

(VII) To long, ghostly cello-strokes, whose sound had a resemblance to that of a didgeridoo, was added the keening of the viola, and quiet contributions on piano : looking at Dearnley’s splayed left hand helped one to appreciate both what she was playing, and how she was playing it. When Gould at last entered, it was an augmentation of all that we heard, but, perhaps contrary to our expectations again, El Chan ended with cello (and a big smile from Caroline Dearnley – please see comments on the Schumann, below).


With any new commission, even from a composer with a pedigree such as - from the programme-notes - one gathers Bryce Dessner’s to be, one may be unsure what its future is : in his case, though, he has been running MusicNow (the music festival in Cincinnati that he founded) for ten years, for example, and so has additional recognition and musical impetus. As well, of course, as the skill as a composer, here evident to all³.

All that aside, Dessner constructed a set of changing moods in El Chan, which, he informed us (again, in the programme-notes), was a reaction to ‘a pool of water which has been the source of popular legends for many centuries’ [El Charco del Ingenio (near San Miguel, Mexico), which he visited in January 2016], after whose ‘guardian spirit’ the composition is named.

In this reviewer’s perception or interpretation, what this Tweeting says was also part of it :




3. Schumann ~ Piano Quartet in E Flat Major (1842), Op. 47

1. Sostenuto assai – Allegro ma non troppo

2. Scherzo : Molto vivace – Trio I – Trio II

3. Andante cantabile

4. Finale : Vivace


The Piano Quartet opens with (1) a chorale, whose use is in a Beethovenian vein, and we heard it as both spirited and thoughtful, before (in the Allegro ma non troppo) Schumann gets ‘into the swing’ of his own, distinct style.

To the movement, the Sinfonia players admirably brought a sense of being placed in relation to the composition, and we were treated to Caroline Dearnley’s luscious cello-tone, before a moment’s rallentando signalled that its close would be in a coda.


The (2) Scherzo was nimble and fleet of foot, flowing like quicksilver into the opening Trio section. Here, as in the connected and celebrated Piano Quintet in the same key (Opus 44), Schumann nervily keeps us alert. Throughout, one was aware of the close communication between the instrumentalists, and the poise that Schumann had them establish prior to employing pizzicato as a closing gesture.


At some level, we must have known that Schumann had set the scene for the gorgeous cello-writing that, here as elsewhere (and through how Caroline Dearnley played his melody-line), he was now to bring us in the (3) Andante cantabile. With it, as the attention moved to Thomas Gould, yearning (Sehnsucht ?) in the sweet-sounding tones of his violin.

Then – but softly, softly - into creating another chorale, whose utterly involving mood came to conjure – via Clare Finnimore on viola (and violin figurations) – the relaxed grandeur of eastern European cities and of the dance, quite gedachtvoll, but also gemütlich. At first, the cello stayed out, but then Dearnley came in, with light pizzicato, to complete the atmosphere. It was a wonder, because – in and through this writing (which might, in other, less-skilful hands, have felt like schmaltz) – we had such a fulness of true feeling.


To draw us into the (4) Finale, the tempo was straightaway Vivace - another facet of that carefree spirit of the Andante ! The joy was that, led by Gould (@ThomasGouldVLN), the musicians of Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) were as excited and enthused by the music as we were :

Infectiously so, in an act of co-creation (Zusammenhalt ?). As the section concluded, Caroline Dearnley gave one of her big smiles of pleasure at the material, and Schumann a fugato, which ended a performance that had easily shown that the Piano Quartet is the emotional equal of the Quintet.

Very enthusiastic applause summed up both the recital as a whole, and this lovely interpretation.




End-notes :

¹ Its world premiere had been given at the end of the previous week, at St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich (@thehallsnorwich), on Friday 8 April 2016, and this was only the second of three performances (the last was the following day, at Wigmore Hall (@wigmore_hall)).

² In Schumann’s Piano Quartet (as described in that part of the review), one feels to have reached this point in the movement marked Andante cantabile.

³ Likewise, in the ensembles and performers with whom Dessner works, including The Kronos Quaret (unbelievably coming to play locally, at Saffron Hall, within a fortnight : Saturday 14 May at 7.30 p.m.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 2 May 2016

Mayday, Mayday - Earth calling !

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


Mayday, Mayday - Earth calling !






Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)