The gestation of this huge work can be traced back to the two-minute Riding the Comet’s Tail (2002), a reference to the Hale-Bopp comet that passed the Earth in 1997. That piece launched the present edifice. The scurrying, circling gestures and stratospherics involved in the Comet movement hardly seem to test Skaerved, and indeed set the scene for a reading of impeccable virtuosity. Pellay rarely asks for more outré effects beloved of some contemporary composers; this is virtuosity in the broadly traditional sense. Whether it is ultra-high cantabile (‘Consolazione per Condolezza’, ‘Post Silence’s Dusk’), stunning virtuosity (Book II’s ‘El Gran Cabrón, a wild depiction of a Witches’ Sabbath) or intimate reverie (‘Reelfoot Echoes’, Book III), Skaerved seems in his element.
There are seven books in total, composed 2002-4. The even numbers of Book I represent the composer’s satirical reactions to the advent of the Bush Administration (Pellay was living in the USA at the time). Only one number here is properly abstract (‘Running on Eggshells’, a study in rapid repeated notes, effortlessly negotiated by Skaerved). If there is an implication of Coplandesque hoe-down in ‘Rag-Caprice Triple A’ (Anti-Ashcroft-Aspersions’), it also viciously includes a circus mirror distortion of Onward Christian Soldiers . The final number of Book I, ‘The Warmonger’s Hoe-Down’, finds the President trying to remember how The Star Spangled Banner starts, and never quite getting it.
Book II, ‘Sabbath Rounds (after Goya)’ is based on Goya’s ‘Black Paintings’, culminating in the terrifying image of Saturn devouring one of his own children (‘Cannibal Planet’). Here Pellay’s music is at its most visceral, both in terms of its sheer frenzy but also in the depiction of ‘hammer-blows’ that finally silence the music (a rare inclusion of non-violinistic sounds). From Goya to autobiography for the third book, taken from Pellay’s memories of America. The highlight is ‘ …as glass particles descend …’ a gorgeous depiction of the freezing of trees.
Book IV, entitled ‘Dovetail Variants, Deviants and Digressions’ is a set of variations without a clear theme: as the most abstract book, it exudes a certain purity of intent and delivery. The poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1971) inspired Book V, a book whose fleeting, ineffable nature provides a fine platform for Skaerved. This is unashamedly lyrical – even the pyrotechnics of the final movement are that of the will-o’-the-wisp and meld into the opening of Book VI, ‘Con(Di)vergences’. More abstract in nature, the theme of this variation set is centrally placed. The final book summarizes the previous music while also including a tribute to one of Pellay’s contemporaries, Augusta Reed Thomas. It is in the final movement that the violinistic fiendishness of the title really comes in, and Skaerved rises to every challenge.