No easy listening here, but there are many rewards for the brave. Philip Howard is a young pianist (he was born in 1976) who is himself a composer. He won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Composer Award at the age of 15. He seems to be a staunch advocate of the more hard-hitting face of modernism, as well as being pretty fearless, if this repertoire is anything to go by.
The mix of young and more established composers is a fruitful one. The programme starts with a piece by Northern Irish composer Paul Whitty, a name new to me. Unfortunately no biographical material on Whitty, or any of the other composers on the disc, is provided
(try http://www.composer.co.uk/composers/whitty.html for a fuller picture).
Together with another featured composer on this disc, Paul Newland, Whitty is a founding member of Ensemble [rout]. The disc, indeed, takes its title from Whitty’s piece, which focuses on the idea of the skin holding secret information about ourselves. This is translated into musical terms by having tiny cells of notes ‘all colliding, contracting and expanding in high-energy bursts of information relayed with frantic intensity’, as Howard puts it in his accompanying commentary. It is certainly hectic (Track 1), with a moment of repose which reveals ‘the ever-present background to all music: silence’. Max Wilson’s Zeitlin [on] of 1988 takes the jazz of Denny Zeitlin as its starting point (Zeitlin, as a by-the-way, provided the music for the 1978 remake of the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Zeitlin [on] even includes an allusion to Zeitlin’s take on Round Midnight. There is an obvious jazz influence, but Wilson manages to speak with his own voice that seems to emanate more from the sphere of ‘Classical’ contemporary music (Track 2).
The fiendish, individual music of the great and sadly missed composer Iannis Xenakis is captured here in an account of the 1973 piece, Evryali. Evryali was one of the three Gorgons of Greek mythology (the others being Stheno and the much more famous Medusa), whose hair was comprised of serpents. Xenakis’s piece oozes energy and it is a pity that Howard misses out on the purely elemental side of this piece. A shame, as this is the stuff of legends and, indeed, nightmares, in its horrific imagery. Claude Helffer has made something of a speciality out of Xenakis’s piano music and his version on Montaigne MO782137 is ultimately to be preferred.
Paul Newland ( http://www.bmic.co.uk/Composers/cv_details.asp?ComposerID=1546) has stated that ‘simplicity allows the mind freedom to imagine’. Single, violent notes stab their way out of a pristinely beautiful pianissimo bed of sounds and punctuating silence. The work was composed in Hiroshima and the composer quotes haiku on the score – their enigmatic aspect suits Newland’s music perfectly.
The disc finishes with two works by established composers, Michael Finnissy and Morton Feldman, each of which is fairly extended. Finnissy’s Eadweard Muybridge-Edvard Munch of 1997 is very, very sparse music (Track 5). Muybridge was a photographer who experimented with successions of images of objects in motion (horses, wrestlers, etc); the Munch reference is to a disturbing series of photos that artist made between 1902 and 1908. Thanks to companies like Metier and NMC, Finnissy enjoys a fairly large discography at present, and Eadweard Muybridge-Edvard Munch is a welcome addition. There are more explosive moments (around eight minutes in, for example) and here, once again, perhaps Howard could have been even more frenetic in realising these outbursts.
The disc ends with Feldman’s very last piano piece, Palais de Mari. The title refers to archaeological discoveries around the ancient city of Mari in what is now Syria. The work contains shifting repetitions that inspire Howard in his booklet notes to wax lyrical on the concept of time and memory. Howard has all the qualities of intense concentration to bring the work off – and listen to the stunning way he projects the music around the seven minute mark as being as delicate as porcelain. This is truly meditative music that is ultimately uplifting and refreshing.
Highly recommended, but bear in mind it is no easy ride.