Hebrides Ensemble, The Jam House, Edinburgh 29 March 2012
A couple of weeks ago, on 29 March, I attended a rather splendid concert by the Hebrides Ensemble at The Jam House in Edinburgh. The main work, and the reason I went, was Messaien's Quartet For The End Of Time, but in keeping with Hebrides' commitment to new music they had commissioned two companion works, specifying only the instrumentation (piano/violin/cello/clarinet) and the piece they would be programmed alongside.
First up was Between Waking and Dreams, by Mark David Boden, which I liked immediately. I think what I liked best about it was that it didn't sound like anybody else: not like somebody trying to emulate a teacher or hero, just someone getting on with writing a delightful piece. The programme notes explained that it was inspired by a Polish poem contrasting the peacefulness of the view from an aeroplane with the bustle down on the ground, and there were certainly contrasts of that kind: but the piece didn't flaunt its "programme" either. I liked it; I'd like to hear it again; I want to hear more of Mark David Boden.
Next came Suzanne Parry John's Introspections and Lullabies for an Unborn Child, which made less of an impression on me. It was perfectly pleasant, and obviously well-crafted, but made no connection to me of the kind the Boden piece had. My jotted note said "elevator music for musical intellectuals", which while harsh is a defensible description. I didn't come away wanting more.
The second half (prefixed by a talk by Richard Holloway on the end of time which quoted from Blade Runner, Philip Larkin, TS Eliot and various others) was the mighty Messaien masterpiece. With players of the calibre of these (Yann Ghiro, clarinet; David Alberman, violin; William Conway, cello; Philip Moore, piano) I expected a great performance, and I got one. The ensemble, put cruelly to the test in the Interlude and the Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets, was uncanny, the technical virtuosity wonderful. It had never occurred to me before how self-effacing Messaien was when it came to writing the piano part: there are whole movements for cello (with piano) and violin (with piano), and a mind-boggling one for solo clarinet, but the pianist never gets to show off. Mind you, it was composed in a POW camp, with half the piece sketched out before a piano was even available, and the piano on which it was premiered was not exactly in prime condition. Still, all the other musicians at the first performance had similar crosses to bear. Not so in Edinburgh, where everything was spot on.