First on this disc is Connolly’s Sonatina No 2 (Nicolas Hodges — piano). It’s subtitled Ennead (from the Greek ‘nine’) but Connolly says he would have called it Night Thoughts — after the poem by Edward Young, famously illustrated by William Blake — if Aaron Copland hadn’t got there first. These literary/pictorial progenitors help the listener new to Connolly’s distinctive musical voice to place him in the wider context of a very English approach to composition. Very different though his voice is, for example, from that of Vaughan Williams, the source of this music is very similar indeed to that of the latter composer’s Job. The Sonatina is in nine short sections, alternately eerie, fantastical, bleary, somnambulant, focussing sharply or softly as the case may be upon the tone row they all derive from. As in dreams, the internal logic is often hard to grasp, but the colourlessness and objectivity — the clarity of sounds at night — is mesmerically interesting.
Colour returns in Nocturnal, a quartet for four flutes (piccolo, concert flute, alto and bass), piano, double-bass and percussion. There is virtuoso playing here, especially from Nancy Ruffer (flutes) and Corrado Canonici (double-bass), evoking mysterious intersections of the physical — the sea, wind and waves — with the metaphysical oceans of the mind. Melville’s God-drenched Captain Ahab, quoted in the epigraph, tilts the balance strongly in favour of the latter, to produce haunted, strange, strangely beautiful music. It was written as a tribute to Edward Shipley.
Tesserae F: Domination in Black offers aural correspondences and analogies to Wallace Stevens’ poem of the same name. Written for the Bass Clarinet (Andrew Sparling) ‘in three verses’, it has some of the surreality of imaginary dialogues invented and spoken to himself by a Beckettian tramp but, also, it’s a wonderful palette of colours drawn from an instrument usually allowed only to croak, creak or croon inside much bigger orchestral textures.
Scardanelli Dreams seems naturally to develop the very literary tendencies evident in these other pieces which are, in some important respects, Songs without Words, but in this last work the voice (Sue Anderson) appears in its own right. Scardanelli was one of the noms-de-plume Holderlin used in his last, ‘mad’ poems.
To describe this music as ‘Words without Song’ would not necessarily be mischievous. The music from the piano is deliberately detached from that of the voice and yet the effect is of a curiously integrated, deeply sympathetic rhapsody. Holderlin’s madness is subverted by music brilliantly characterised through Connolly’s response to the famous one-word verse — fleißig (busy) of Auf falbem Laube — which he inflects into almost every part of this cantata/cycle. For all that Sue Anderson projects the words sensuously, this remains a labyrinth of extremely difficult, essentially cerebral, music — itself an image of Holderlin’s almost ruined but uncannily perceptive mind. Nicolas Hodges, the pianist throughout this disc, masters every nuance the musical landscape requires. He can mention as well as mutter, demonstrate as well as remonstrate, but his formidable technique dissolves difficulty and urges on us the attention this music deserves.