4 And More Music

Adelaide Town Hall | Bryars, Skempton, Pärt

Adelaide Town Hall | Bryars, Skempton, Pärt

Gavin Bryars

GB Records
5052442008552 | BCGBCD 25 | 1CD

Howard Skempton: Lento (1990)

Lento was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra to precede a performance of Wagner's prelude to Parsifal and uses the same instrumentation. It consists of a sequence of major and minor triads - crotchets at an implacable steady tempo, rather like Satie's Les Pantins Dansent, or the first movement of Haydn's "Philosopher" Symphony. Most of Lento is scored for just strings with a central section for wind alone - solo groups of trombones, bassoons and oboes. There are just eight bars for full orchestra and two brief flurries for timpani. Those familiar with Howard's work as a whole will recognise the same spirit, clarity of purpose and rigour that appears in his earliest works, though here transposed into a much grander environment. Coincidentally, Lento was the opening work in a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1993 that featured the premiere of my cantata The War in Heaven.

Gavin Bryars: The Porazzi Fragment (1999)

This work for 21 solo strings originates in an enigmatic, and unpublished, 13 bar musical theme by Wagner which appears to have been started during the period (1858-9) when he was composing the second act of Tristan und Isolde, but only finished shortly after the completion of Parsifal in Palermo (1882). This was the music that he was reported to have been playing on the piano the night before he died in February 1883 at the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi in Venice and which, as Cosima’s diary notes, represents his “last musical thoughts”. In my piece, the original Wagner music eventually appears in the lower strings towards the end - rather in the way the funeral march from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony emerges at the end of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen (also for solo strings).

Arvo Pärt: If Bach had been a Beekeeper (1976)

This piece comes at a critical point in Arvo's output, just a year before the composition of his most well known works Fratres, Cantus and Tabula Rasa. As in the slightly earlier Credo, he uses the well-known musical spelling of Bach's name B A C H (the notes B flat-A-C-B natural) but here, rather than as an overt theme, this appears in the constant 'buzzing' of tremolo strings throughout the lively first section, overlaying different transpositions and metres. Those more familiar with his later work may be surprised at the humour and energy of this first part with its brisk marching tempo, wide dynamics and strident solo horn punctuations. There is wit too, albeit of a more restrained kind, in the extremely slow, stately and elegant second part, which emerges like the slow movement from a Bach orchestral suite.  

Ennelina's Aria/Epilogue from G (2002)

The full title of G, my third opera is G, being the confession and last testament of Johannes Gensfleisch, also known as Gutenberg, Master Printer, formerly of Strasbourg and Mainz. The first act of the opera is set in Strasbourg, where Gutenberg developed his technology, and the second in Mainz, where he ultimately produced his printing. In the first act he had been sued for breach of a marriage promise to his fiancée Ennelina and she returns in the second act as a Beguine nun. G does not recognise her and barely acknowledges her presence when she appears, and refuses to listen to her when, in this aria, she prophesises his eventual ruin. In the opera there follows a court case in which his backer Fust wins ownership of Gutenberg's invention and he is left destitute. In the Epilogue that follows Act Two, a benign G, now singing from beyond the grave some 600 years after the event, muses on his achievement and asks, now that the print era he inaugurated is over, to be left in peace.

There are clear links to earlier music between all the works on this recording, chiefly to that of Bach and Wagner. Both Howard's Lento and my Porazzi Fragment have direct connections with Wagner and Arvo's If Bach had been a Beekeeper refers to Bach in ways that are both witty and touching. And both Bach and Wagner are key musical sources for my third opera G in which the movement between Strasbourg and Mainz provides the Rhine, hence Wagner, as a central image and connecting thread. Gutenberg's production of the Bible, the "Book of Johannes," also leads to both musical and dramaturgical reference to Bach. Towards the end of the opera, for example, Johannes is destroyed by a court case in which a key element is the evidence of his apprentice Peter who, as with Jesus's disciple Peter, "denies him thrice." This leads to almost direct quotation from the equivalent location in Bach's St John Passion...