Wednesday, 19 April 2017

NMC Brian Elias Electra Mourns

At the Wigmore Hall, Brian Elias's Oboe Quintet coincided with the release of a new recording of Elias's work from NMC Records, specialists in modern British music.

The title piece, Electra Mourns, won Elias a British Composer Award. It received its premiere in 2012, with the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Clark Rundell, with soloists Susan Bickley and Nicholas Daniel  for whom the piece was created. .  Electra mourns is a dramatic scena, with the stylized formality of Greek tragedy. Electra is alone, without hope, in hostile circumstances.   Bickley sings the long, keening lines expressing Electra's desolation. But Orestes is not actually dead. Daniel's cor anglais surrounds the vocal part, mimicking its curving lines. Voice and instrument in duet are heard against a backdrop of strings, punctuated by piano.  Functioning like Greek chorus, the orchestra comments, wordlessly, sharp angular outbursts suggesting alarm. High textures sear, like flailing whips.  Yet the cor anglais continues, unperturbed, its sensuous richness evoking elusive mysteries.   When the strings go still, its chords grow strong and clear. Electra listens.  Bickley's voice intones at the bottom of her range, then soars.    

Electra Mourns is enhanced by Geranos, from 1985, here performed by Psappha, conducted by Nicholas Kok, who first performed it in 2003. Both pieces take their cue from Greek legend but take on different form. Geranos is tightly constructed and taut, evoking the idea of dance as athletic discipline. The slow middle movement refers to a ritual dance of mourning.  The puzzles and mazes of Harrison Birtwistle naturally spring to mind, but Elias's style  is his own.  Sparkling textures (piccolo, strings, metallic percussion) illuminate the third and final movement.  Theseus was said to have danced on escaping the Labyrinth. Geranos ends with lucid, clear tones. A "geranos" is a crane, flying free.  

While  the texts for Meet Me in the Green Glen are by John Clare (1793-1864), Elias's setting is minimal, almost "Grecian".  Roderick Williams and Susan Bickley sing without accompaniment, their plaintive lines evoking timeless plainchant rather than quasi-folk song.  The unadorned beauty of the singing is enhanced by a slight echo effect, as if the recording was made in a silent chamber.  Perhaps the "Green Glen" is a tomb-like time warp. The poems refer to the past, to "Now" and"Hesperus, thy twinkling bray" that "tolls the traveller on his way that Earth shall be forgiven".  A fascinating mix of quiet and disquiet, utterly modern in spirit.  .

The five songs of Meet Me in the Green Glen (2009)  are followed by the five songs of Once I did breathe another's breath  for low voice and piano, premiered by Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside at the Ludlow English Song Weekend in 2012.  The texts are more disparate, and the cycle less coherent.  Ludlow began as a tribute to Gerald Finzi whose  affinity for Tudor and Stuart poetry few can match.  Roderick Williams, nonetheless, is superlative, with such a gift for communication that anything he sings is well worth listening to.   Electra Mourns is the third of NMC's Brian Elias recordings, and a good addition to the catalogue of British music.  

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