Whole concerts devoted to the music of one composer can be risky affairs: a cruel test of how mature and robust a composer is. In a concert devoted to the music of the South African composer Robert Fokkens, given by the Fidelio Trio and opening Cardiff University’s 2013/14 series, both composer and performers came through with flying colours.
Now in his late thirties, Fokkens is a lecturer in composition at Cardiff University. This portrait concert marks the release this week of a CD devoted to his work on the Metier label and a rare opportunity to take stock of his development over the last ten years or so. The music is both spare and spacious, its gestures and material refined, nearly always memorable, cool and restrained, but always at the service of the emotional idea behind it. The use of the three performers throughout the five pieces was equally economical: violin and cello, solo piano, cello and piano, violin and piano and, finally, the whole trio.
In an introduction in the programme, the composer defines his music as exploring identity – cultural, social and geographical – and, specifically, his native South Africa. For a composer finding his voice back in the 1990s this was forbidden territory. As recalled in a post-concert discussion, Kevin Volans had been much attacked for attempting to do the same thing. But with so many aspects of South African musical culture making up his own musical DNA from early on, Fokkens has let it blossom into a richly personal voice over the last ten years.
Behind the music are techniques taken from traditional Xhosa bow music, of which his first experience “remains one of the most powerful moments in my musical life”. Yet it is not music that attempts to recreate a culture, but which is filtered through a western “classical” sensibility. Some of these ideas came through most clearly in Tracing Lines (2006), which opened the concert, where Darragh Morgan’s violin and Robin Michael’s cello effortlessly negotiated their way through cyclic rhythmic patterns, lines arising out of them coloured by microtonal tuning and mutes to create a delicate web of sound. Along the way, one could feel Fokkens evolving these ideas in Irreconcilable Truths (2002 – violin and piano), in the Carter-like juxtapositions of confrontation between instruments ( On Disruption and Displacement – 2004) or the splendidly varied Nine Solitudes given by pianist Mary Dullea.
Only at the end of the concert did the trio perform together in the most recent work on the programme: Mammals of Southern Africa (2011). Suddenly all the various elements of the earlier pieces came together in a work of absolute stylistic unity. Fokkens found a range of colour and spareness in the piano trio texture that should be a model for students attempting this most challenging of combinations. The Fidelio Trio have lived with many of these works over a period of up to ten years, and they were the best possible advocates for it.