Tuesday, 22 October 2019

David Sawer Rumpelstiltskin, April\March - Martyn Brabbins, BCMG, NMC

From NMC specialists in modern British music, David Sawer Rumpelstitlskin, with Martyn Brabbins conducting the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, the team who premiered the ballet in 2010 and also the Rumpelstiltkin Suite (2011) featured here, recorded at a performance at the Wigmore Hall in 2013.  Rumpelstiltskin was one of the BCMG's most successful commissions : this commercial release has long been awaited.

Rumpelstiltskin is a fairy tale so grim even Disney stays clear. A bankrupt miller fools bailiffs, claiming that his daughter can spin straw into gold.  Up pops an ugly dwarf, who staves off the crisis, but keeps the girl prisoner. Though the miller was lying about the girl's ability to spin gold from straw, the Dwarf makes the scam come true.  The King is fooled and makes the girl his queen. When the dwarf returns to collect his payoff, the the girl steals the secret of the spell and gets rid of him by revealing his name. He shatters into many pieces. The girl's as dishonest as her father was. She thinks she's entitled to riches she didn't earn, and destroys the outsider to whom she owed her good fortune. What kind of moral does this tell? Sawer's take on the tale is uncompromising : it's a parable for modern times.

The fully staged original (Stewart Laing) presented the tale with stark stylization, the set a box-like structure which emphasized the claustrophia : scams are being woven, caught up in their own mad logic. Even then, though, music was integral to the narrative.  Members of the BCMG moved on stage in and out of the set, the action standing still at critical points to highlight solo players. Effectively, instruments as singers, telling the story without words. The idea of weaving and stalking flowed from the structure of the score. One ensemble with muffled tuba, trumpet, horn, clarinets, oboe, flute, bassoon, bass - dark, ominous - represented one force. The other, smaller ensemble led by harp, with violin, viola, cello represented something more fragile. At first, the girl, but later the Dwarf, destroyed when she loses her innocence. Both groups merge and change like a puzzle "spun" from sound on different levels. Interpretively, this expresses the changing alliances in the plot, the good becoming evil, the strong becoming weak.

Sawer's Rumpelstilstkin Suite concentrates the intensity still further. In the first movement, "The Idle Boast", tuba and bassoon suggest the miller's bombast, and probably also the Dwarf's pride. Trumpets call out, "naming" the miller with sounds of alarm, much as the girl eventually names the Dwarf. As the spell takes hold, the harp, winds and strings, evoke the sound of busy spinning - percussive strikes imitating the shuttle of the spinning wheel flying frantically back and forth. Gradually, the pile of gold rises higher and higher til perhaps we can't see the girl anymore behind the wall of booming orchestral sound. Trumpets announce "The Wedding and Coronation" but what are the baleful sounds of bassoon and clarinet telling us ? The procession goes on its merry way, figures repeating as if in perpetual motion. Bassoon and tuba dance along : as long as surfaces shine, no-one questions. All must be gold.  "The Guessing Game" is brief but tense, strings duelling brass and winds. In the "The Dwarf Alone", the mood is darker : the harp at its lowest register, the brass and winds pacing tense patterns, as if the Dwarf was stomping his feet.  The trumpet blows raspberries, cruelly mocking the Dwarf's dilemma. Rumpelstiltskin does his last dance, clumsy, grotesques, with strident  interjections from the brass, long, high pitched screams and turbulent circular lines suggesting upheaval. The sharp percussive sounds which once suggested the shuttle of the spinning wheel return.  The Dwarf dies but the girls keeps spinning her scam.

Cat's-eye (1986) is an early work, but already Sawer's distinctive feel for dramatic dialectic is apparent. Instruments operate in pairs and in larger groups, with piano and harp at the centre, interacting with nervous, jerky frisson, in constantly changing patterns, each of the seven sections developing what went before. Sustained chords contrast with staccato, moments of near-silence with explosive outburst. Like the sense of perpetual motion in the Rumpelstiltskin Suite, Cat's-Eye generates and regenerates itself with inventive energy.

With April\March (2106), Sawer adapts concepts of time and time reversal, to create an intricate puzzle.  Note the backslash in the title ! Inspired by Jorge Luis Borges's short story A survey of the Works of Herbert Quain,  Sawer experiments with ideas of symmetry, rules subverted and reformulated, sequences moving backwards as well as forward. A melody is heard as if from a distant past, but its lines blur, as if it were being heard back to front.  "Time", writes Steph Power for NMC, "is key to Sawer's music on many levels. It's the precision of his timing, allied with an instinct for structural proportaion and elegance that enables him to explore oppositional tensions with such verve. Boldness and clarity of texture, surprise, economy of ecxpression and an ear for the catchily skew-whiff combine in ways that see-saw between equilibrium and dis-equilbrium, while always remaining cogent  and direct".  Though this music is accessible to listen to, it isn't easy to play.  Martyn Brabbins and The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group perform it with the precision and idiomatic panache it deserves.

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