With the exception of Chroma for solo quartet and strings and The Storyteller for string ensemble, which appeared on a 1999 Opus 20 release and Secret Sky for piano quartet (1999), included on the Schubert Ensemble’s ‘Bright Future’ compilation on the NMC label, the music of Ed Hughes (b.1968) has proved singularly elusive on disc. Metier are therefore to be applauded for producing a generously filled 2-CD set, which contains examples of the composer’s chamber, choral and instrumental music. A Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Sussex, Hughes studied at Cambridge University with Robin Holloway and Alexander Goehr, and at Southampton University with Michael Finnissy. Important commissions from the City of London and Brighton Festivals helped to introduce his distinctive voice to a wider public. Written and first performed in 2005, these breakthrough works consisted of an opera, The Birds, and a film score for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, both pieces testifying to his ability to communicate effectively on a large canvas. Yet many of his scores for reduced forces are no less striking and engaging, as evidenced by the various pieces in Metier’s anthology.
The Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello and piano was commissioned by the London Sinfonietta, who premiered it at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in February 1998. Cast in one compact movement lasting just under eight minutes, this concentrated work’s calm and lyrical surface is contrasted with pointed, rhythmic passages. Though the basic materials – most notably a descending semi-chromatic scalic figure – are relatively straightforward, Hughes weaves them into an increasingly intricate polyphonic web. His evident gift for contrapuntal textures is expressed with great economy in a piece that makes a highly effective introduction to both this collection and his output as a whole.
Originally written as a single-movement work for 13 instruments, Hughes’s Chamber Concerto is presented here in a later version in four movements for seven players. Though it reveals a similar preoccupation with polyphony, this substantial 17-minute piece for ensemble is more diverse in content than the Quartet, incorporating jazzy rhythms and obsessive, scurrying ostinati within its wider vocabulary. There are four open-ended movements, of which the first is a bracing, spiky Allegro , the second a more self-possessed Andante and the third an exuberant scherzo; the finale revisits earlier material, casting fresh light upon it.
Dark Formations was the result of a collaboration between the composer and David Chandler, Professor of Photography at the University of Plymouth; the project focused on the intensive Allied bombing of German cities in the final years of World War II, through the media of sound, music and photographs from the Imperial War Museum’s archives; an example of these, showing a Avro Lancaster bombing Hamburg in January 1943, appears on the cover of Metier’s CD booklet. A monolithic, monochrome and monothematic piece for ensemble with shifting textural layers that exert a strong, ritualistic pull on the listener, Dark Formations has a muted but formidable potency.
A study for the scoring of Eisenstein’s film of the same name, Strike!, (2006) is another piece for small ensemble, yet is a much more colourful and varied score than Dark Formations . With echoes of the music of Stravinsky, Weill and Eisler, and even, on occasion, Messiaen, this is a diverting, collage-like invention, whose idiosyncratic, ‘melting pot’ nature seems to capture the composer’s essence.
Hughes’s Sextet is scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, marimba/ vibraphone and piano. There are three compact movements, of which the first was inspired by the alto line chant from John Tavernier’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas; the plainsong theme is used extensively, though Hughes’ own unique character, as the composer of the Quartet, for example, can be easily identified throughout. There are minimalist tendencies in the second movement, though traces of this technique (namely repeated patterns) are perceptible in most of Hughes’ other works. In the virtuosic finale, elements of a ground may be discerned in its measured, repeated bass line over which violin and flute are given exhilaratingly bravura passages.
Scored for mixed quintet, Light Cuts Through Dark Skies is derived from another film score, this time to Joris Ivens’s 1929 silent film, Rain. Hughes employs his customary reiterated phrases and polyphonic textures to complement and explore fresh facets of the film’s detailed visual patterns of light and shifting perspectives. In order to achieve a more translucent effect, the five players are frequently divided into smaller units of duos and trios. Framing the piece are two vivid evocations of the dancing play of light on water before and after the rain, respectively.
Metier’s second disc is devoted to just two major works. Orchids is a sequence of six pieces for solo piano which evolved between 1990 and 2002. In each movement the floral patterns of the title are reflected in gradual transformations in the music. The most delicate of the series, the fourth, is followed by a strenuous moto perpetuo and the set concludes with a sharply dissonant piece that resolves calmly. Considering each piece was written for, and dedicated to, a different pianist, Orchids makes a remarkably unified and coherent entity whose scope and diversity add up to one of the composer’s most ambitious achievements.
This selection of Hughes’s oeuvre concludes with arguably his most directly affecting work, the vocal piece A Buried Flame , commissioned by Bath Camerata. Scored for either solo voices or chorus, it sets texts drawn from a collection of poems written in extremis by detainees at Guantanamo Bay and extracts from Psalm 69; a reminder that suffering, oppression and imprisonment have been part of the human experience throughout the ages. The raw emotional power of the poems is matched by the intensity of Hughes’s motet-like treatment, and their characteristic polyphonic textures resonate and evolve to compelling effect in a passionately committed performance that makes a fitting conclusion to an inspiring , thoughtfully compiled programme.
Ed Hughes lays down considerable challenges to performers in each of his scores and they are met here with virtuosity and imagination by the New Music Players, the New Music Vocal Ensemble and pianist Richard Casey in ideal readings, polished and alert, which it is difficult to imagine being surpassed. Though the recordings cover a time span of more than a decade, such diversity in no way vitiates Metier’s consistently fine recorded sound. This is a valuable survey of a composer whose unorthodox and resourceful music deserves to be better known; his reputation has unquestionably been enhanced by this release.