Including Sadie Harrison and Morag Galloway world premieres.
By Paul Conway
The first evening concert in the 2021-22 season of York’s enterprising Late Music series based in the city’s Unitarian Chapel was a recital on 2 October 2021 by the ensemble Gemini. Featuring two premieres, the programme contained works shaped by a wide variety of inspirations and influences, from poets and artists to nature and stories.
Philip Grange’s Elegy for solo cello (2009) received a passionately committed reading by Sophie Harris, given from memory. The piece was inspired by the composer’s feelings following a visit to the grave in the tiny French village of Agny of the poet Edward Thomas, who was killed in the battle of Arras in 1917. Beginning hesitantly, the music established an anguished tone, riven with troubled outbursts and nervously wistful episodes. The score’s expressive use of pizzicato and pregnant pauses between phrases was superbly realised and the eloquent central section consisting of a sequence of delicate harmonics was conveyed with considerable poetry. The calm acceptance of the final bars was especially effective, given the ardour of Sophie Harris’s rendering of the preceding material.
Peter Maxwell Davies’s Economies of Scale, for violin, cello, clarinet and piano (2002) was based on a scalic figure from an early string quartet by the composer. Keenly virtuosic, the score was hard driven at the start. A slackening of pace heralded a more sustained passage which allowed the wind and string players time to embellish their lines. A resumption of the quicker tempo led to a softer restatement of the opening material and the work ended quietly but firmly in the B major tonality towards which this goal-oriented piece had always seemed to be striving. Tough and lucidly argued, Economies of Scale was played by the Gemini ensemble with technical refinement and a strong sense of architecture.
Steve Crowther’s Trio for clarinet, viola and piano (2019) was cast in one movement, driven by insistent repeated rhythmic patterns. The players found light and shade in the reiterated sections, thanks to their scrupulous observation of shifts in dynamics, and seemed to revel in the Trio’s bustling, often syncopated melodic lines.
Receiving its premiere, Sadie Harrison’s Fire in Song, for clarinet, viola and two clapstick-playing narrators (2020) was written during the bush fires that swept through much of Australia in 2019-20 and includes the telling of the creation story about fire by the Yoingu group of Aboriginal Australians. Featured on a recent release on the Métier label, this work made a strong impression on disc, but seeing it performed live was an even more affecting experience. The two weighty laments which frame the score were delivered with compelling emotional force, providing maximum contrast with the joyful dance-inflected episodes. The dramatic use of clapsticks was especially effective in the reverberant acoustics of York’s Unitarian Church and witnessing the speakers (cellist Sophie Harris and pianist Aleksander Szram) address the audience from both sides of the performing space emphasised the individual, human voices at the heart of this important piece. For the Australian-born composer, this was clearly a deeply personal project, and it was intensely gratifying to witness the care and commitment the players gave to the work’s concert debut and the enthusiastic reception it earned from the audience.
Another major premiere opened the second half of the concert. Morag Galloway’s It’s Getting Hot in Here, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2020) was inspired by the properties of water in its three physical states, with the clarinet portraying liquid water, the cello ice, the violin steam, and the piano, with its steel frame, the earth. Unfolding purposefully in six continuous movements, the taut narrative charted an increasing global warmth with an unsettling inevitability, from the hushed opening, through lyrical instrumental solos, to the incandescent climax, which finds the three ‘water’ instruments vapourised over a raging, boiling earth. A substantial quartet avowedly for our time, It’s Getting Hot in Here was powerful, gripping and scored with notable economy and precision. The players captured the score’s immediacy and sincerity in their arresting account.
Philip Grange’s Piano Trio: Homage to Chagall (1995) is a heartfelt tribute from the composer to the Russian-French early modernist artist. The four movements share material but present the ideas in different guises. The dramatic, closely argued opening movement was laced with cello recitatives, expressively voiced by Sophie Harris. The following scherzo was brilliant and hushed, a blur of elusive half-lights. By contrast, the slow third movement was a deeply felt lament which built to a fervent climax before sliding up into the ether. A fiery, synoptic finale, with a measured, introspective passage at its heart, brought this absorbing, tightly knit score, and the players’ wide-ranging recital, to an immensely satisfying conclusion.