La Chute D'Icare Import
Ferneyhough, an English composer, is the father figure of a movement in contemporary classical music called the New Complexity, and his music is a fascinating synthesis of the highest delicacy in instrumental writing with visceral fervor. The works on this disc are all excerpts from an immense cycle entitled Carceri d'Invenzione (Dungeons of Invention). The strongly drawn architectural features of the music, inspired by the series of etchings by Piranesi, are impressive; but it is the fragile, expressive textures that are finally most moving and memorable. --Joshua Cody
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This was the first Ferneyhough I had ever heard and I originally wrote a very negative review. The fault was entirely mine. (For one, I was listening to the disc while travelling in India, and noisy marketplaces and motorcycle-filled streets are not the best environment for music that exploits dynamic range to the fullest.) You see, I had misunderstood Ferneyhough as an eggheaded composer of music based on processes that couldn't actually be heard. In fact, Ferneyhough is best seen as an expressionist, and in spite of his microtonal harmonies and irrational rhythms, he's communicating energies and sonic shapes that you can grasp, plus there's a lot of counterpoint going on that the ear can follow. When I decided to give his music another try, I enjoyed it greatly, and when I later read a detailed analysis of a piece by a musicologist, I was stunned to find that it accorded perfectly with my own impressions of the piece. So much for Ferneyhough's mythical abstraction. That said, this music is not for everyone (is any music?), so your mileage may vary.
Most of the pieces here are drawn from Ferneyhough's seven-piece cycle Carceri d'Invenzione (Dungeons of Invention, 1981-86). That cycle opens with "Superscriptio" for piccolo (1981), performed here by Harrie Stareveld. This short piece consists of fast pulsations with shifting rhythmic modules. It's amazing that a human being can master such a tricky part, where at one point it sounds like there are actually two flautists on the stage. Starreveld also performs the closing piece of the cycle, "Mnemnosyne" for bass flute and tape (1986), which has the same charms plus some eerie interaction between the live part and the tape one.
The "Etudes Transcendales" (1982-85) are the centre of the Carceri d'Invenzione cycle. These are settings of poems by Ernst Meister and Alrun Moll for soprano and a changing cast of solo instruments or duos. Needless to say, the actual text is completely abstracted and treated as mere phonetic material as the vocalist makes all kinds of devilish leaps and extended techniques like glottal stops. While never conventionally melodic, the oboe opening is catchy, and I'm fond of a duo between harpsichord and cello where the former plays inchoate clouds of notes and the latter a pizzicato line.
"Intermedio alla ciaccona" for violin (1986) opens with a gentle introduction in the violin's low end that indeed puts one in the mood of the Baroque chaconne form. The word then explodes into a dazzling prism of harmonics, pizzicato, and furious bow work.
Finally, "La Chúte d'Icare" and chamber ensemble (1988) is a delightful work where a clarinetist plays continually an ascending and descending line as the other instruments provide shifting accompaniment. At the end, after a section of shockingly periodic rhythms for this composer, the percussionist patters loudly on the bongos: Icarus has fallen into the sea. Armand Angster is the clarinetist here; he was also the dedicatee of the piece. This recording is enjoyable, but I slightly prefer the sound on the Kairos disc where the ELISION ensemble perform, and clarinettist Carl Rosman there had had a longer time to grapple with the demands of the piece. (The Accord recording with the Ensemble Contrechamps takes a distant third place).