Review of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

Review of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, as invigorating and popular as ever, is this year devoted to English and Italian music. Comparison is inevitable, and so far as design and style go the Italians, as in most other things, definitely have it, at least on the evidence of the music heard during the course of a climactic weekend.

Dominating all else, even the sound-sculptures which have delighted local schoolboys as well as the occasional music critic in the town’s art gallery, was the presence in body as well as sound of Luciano Berio, whose sixtieth birthday the festival has celebrated with a flourish and two concerts.

First, in St Paul’s Hall, the imaginatively converted church where most of the festival concerts take place, an ad hoc group gave an impressive gala recital that covered more ground than the narrow chronological spread of most of the works it included might have suggested. What all of the pieces showed, of course, was Berio’s refined ear. I am not sure that Sequenza X, for trumpet and a pianist who provides only sympathetic resonances, wholly justifies its length, and it hardly compared with its companion works, Sequenza II for harp (Francis Pierre) and Sequenza IV for piano (Massimiliano Damerini), in its limited sonic exploration. Nevertheless, David Short played it with commendable stamina and just as much virtuosity as his colleagues.

The tape piece Provillus, composed in the euphoria of electronic experimentation in 1961, has survived surprisingly well. It was presented here accompanied by the aptly lunatic dance of Antonella Agati, and consequently lost much of the sterility that such works, because of their predictability, usually imply. And Elizabeth Laurence’s flexible vocal antics and some equally athletic contributions from the two percussionists and harpist helped realize the aural and visual drama of Circles, now a quarter of a century old, to stunning effect.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert, conducted by the composer, should have crowned the celebrations, and that it did not can be largely attributed to a rather dull performance with the BBC Singers of the enormous Coro. There are plenty of contrasting sound-images to relish here, but the work came at one in immobile solid blocks rather than with fluidity. More gratifying by far were the busy textures of Points on the Curve to Find; more pleasing still was Sarah Walker’s infectiously camp performance of Folk Songs.

But Berio does not, apparently, inhabit his highly sensitized sound-world alone. Perhaps the most pleasing concert of the weekend was one of music by some of his compatriots given by the Divertimento Ensemble of Milan under their director, Sandro Gordi. Aldo Clementi, Berio’s exact contemporary, is, it seems, a man obsessed with canon, yet his whimsical Berceuse for bass clarinet, prepared piano and echoing viola and cello, though rigorously constructed, was quietly expressive and refined. Similarly Niccolo Castiglioni’s Tropi (1959) and Franco Donationihs moving and lovingly crafted Lumen (in memoriam Luigi Dallapiccola) were each immensely attractive. And, importantly, neither composer makes the mistake of overstating himself.

A concert by the trio Musica d’Oggi contained instances of composers doing just that, though Giacinto Scelsi’s subdued Kho-Lhoo for flute and clarinet, Luigi Nono’s dark, fascinatingly explorative Inquietum for bass flute and contrabass clarinet (both concealed from view) and Salvatore Sciarrino’s Hermes, whose delicate timbres and harmonics were realized quite beautifully by Roberto Fabbriciani, were certainly not culpable cases. But Brian Ferneyhough’s typically tough and complex Lemma-Icon-Epigram for piano (Damerini) and Carceri d’invenzione IIb for flute (Fabbriciani again) contained too many notes to be admired for anything other than their aggessiveness.

In a different way, so did much of the music played by Lontano in their concert though the effect of such excess in Bernard Rands’s Canti del Sole, sung by Martyn Hill, and a new work, John Hopkins’s White Winter, Peggasus Spring, in which Hill and Henry Herford were given unfathomable snatches of Robert Lowell’s poetry to sing, was one of neo-Straussian over-richness. By contrast, the winning piece in Yorkshire Arts Association’s Young Composer competition, Stephen Kings’s Snapshots, was most delicately scored, saying what it had to say in a direct, though poetic, manner.

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