Live contemporary music

I recently attended a great concert by Rarescale which incorporated music by contemporary composers for bass clarinet, low flutes and electronics. I have made notes on some of the pieces I heard, by composers who were all new to me.

Greg Caffrey: Nocturne

This piece by the Northern Irish composer was written for bass flute and bass clarinet. I had never heard the bass flute being performed before, and I thought it was a great combination – the sounds blend together really well. This piece had a combination of quite meandering melodies as well as sudden, quick melodic flourishes. It’s a very expressive piece, with intense crescendos and diminuendos through long, sustained notes. There are several instances where the flute and clarinet play a semitone apart, creating a beating effect which sounds very resonant on these low instruments.

Sohrab Udumann: Penumbra

This piece was composed for solo bass clarinet and live electronics (the first time I have heard live electronics being used in a performance). The electronics part featured recorded clarinet sounds which the live instrumental part appears to morph into. I heard this technique used later in another new piece for recorder and electronics – I think it can create quite an appealing and interesting effect, whereby the listener is not sure where the performer’s sound ends and the recording begins. When electronics are used to manipulate the recorded sound in some way as well (e.g. by extending its duration, adding resonance or pitch bend), it can be particularly effective. This piece has no definable rhythm or tempo – sometimes sounds entering gradually and other times jumping around frantically. I think it creates an atmospheric soundscape.

Ryan Molloy

Unfortunately I missed the title of this piece, but it was written by the Irish composer Ryan Molloy whose work integrates traditional Irish music with contemporary music. This particular piece was played on bass clarinet, and uses multiphonics created from very deep notes which reminds me of the sound of a didgeridoo – I think it has quite a raw, tribal feel. The performer seemed to be able to control the relative amounts of the harmonics in each note in a very beautifully expressive way.





Jonathan Harvey

Jonathan Harvey: Mortuos plango vivos voco (1980)

Philip Mead | 2013 ESFOR Limited

This is a very atmospheric and spooky sounding piece for 8-track tape, based on recordings of the bell at Winchester cathedral as well as the composer’s son’s voice. It makes strong use of stereo effects, which I afterwards learnt was intended to give the impression of being inside the bell itself. It starts with a loud peal of bell chimes and the sound of the boy’s voice singing at the same pitches. Sounds built up from the frequency spectrum of the bell are then manipulated electronically using effects such as pitch bend, sounding in places like screaming. The harmonics of a bell like this are clearly audible so it provides an interesting source of harmony for the piece – often dissonant and yet somehow not unpleasant to listen to. The insistent chime of the low bell towards the end of the piece together with the ebb and flow of crescendos and diminuendos in the voice parts is quite other-worldly.

Baroque Instruments

Albinoni: Oboe Concerto in D minor Op. 9 no 2 (1722)

London Virtuosi | John Georgiadis | Naxos 2016

This is a short concerto for oboe with strings and basso continuo (harpsichord) accompaniment. I found it unexpectedly dry and boring – possibly due to a limited harmonic scope; it seems to move around the circle of fifths an awful lot! The basso continuo accompaniment is also quite predictable and plodding, but I do like the use of different articulations in the solo oboe part and the melodic lines, which I think have a clear sense of direction and effective climaxes.

Tartini: Sonata in G minor (‘Il Trillo Del Diavolo’) (c.1740)

Gordan Nikolitch | Orchestre d’Auvergne | David Oistrakh | 2015 Musical Concepts

I had to double check that this was really played by just one violinist – there are what sounds like some incredibly difficult passages with double stops and simultaneous trilling! The recording I listened to has a piano accompaniment, and the violin is played with lots of vibrato which I think is probably not historically accurate. It creates a passionate and intense sound that reminded me a little of Spanish gypsy music. The second movement has a solo section with an extended dominant section that really builds up the tension. The last movement has a melancholy melody to start with before resuming the devil’s antics! There are some quite fast harmonic progressions in this movement (the chord changing every one or two beats) which adds to the overall feeling of energy.

Vivaldi: Concerto for Two Mandolins (c.1740)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment | unCLASSIFIED 2016

This is an unusual instrument to pick for a concerto – it has a fairly quiet sound so would probably have been performed with a chamber orchestra (the version I listened to had strings and harpsichord accompaniment). I enjoyed the contrasting percussive sound of the mandolins against the strings. The first movement is a fast Allegro, with lots of tonic-dominant-tonic chord progressions. I found the second, slow movement more interesting; this was written for the solo mandolins with just a pizzicato string accompaniment which blends in with the sound. It has a thoughtful mood, and the mandolins play a kind of duet which passes the melody between them like a conversation. There is a brief pause before the final note which seems to be characteristic of this period.

Twentieth century Masses

Stravinsky: Mass (1944-48)

Gregg Smith Singers | Orchestra of St. Luke’s | Robert Craft | 2006

Stravinsky’s mass is orchestrated for chorus and wind/brass ensemble, with a noticeable lack of strings which provided the core accompaniment for the previous masses I have listened to. The movements are all fairly short, amounting to a total length of around 20 minutes. A large part of the work has a predominantly homophonic texture. It contains frequent dissonances which I believe in some instances are the result of polytonality (multiple keys at the same time), but this is contrasted with straightforward diatonic harmony too. The harmony is what stands out to me as giving this mass its defining character – in places I think it’s quite beautiful.

James MacMillan: Mass (2000)

Taylor Festival Choir | Robert Taylor | 2016

This more recent mass was composed for choir and organ. The organ is used to an unusual effect in the Kyrie – deep, sustained pedal notes and a sort of continuous rippling sound from the manuals. I like the soundscape created by the merging of the organ and choir voices. The work is quite dissonant in places; in the Gloria this is particularly evident with frequent clashes created between the organ and voices. The organ’s swell pedal is used very effectively to create climaxes, and I like the support and balance that the pedal notes provide to the music throughout. The overall mood created by this mass is quite spooky and atmospheric – particularly in the closing Agnus Dei which has sustained dissonances, some of them very high pitched.

Classical and Romantic Masses

Mozart: Mass in C minor (1782-83)

English Baroque Soloists | Monteverdi Choir | John Eliot Gardiner | 1987

The powerful Kyrie Eleison in Mozart’s famous mass has a slow moving theme which is incredibly dramatic when imitated in turn by the choral parts. The leaning emphasis on the ‘lei’ syllable suggests to me an image of pleading which fits well with the meaning of the words (“Lord have mercy”). The soprano solo in the Laudamus te on the other hand is more light hearted and operatic sounding, displaying more of the typically Classical characteristics – light, bouncy strings and symmetrically balanced melodies. I love the dramatic settings of the texts the most in this mass: the suspensions, imitative counterpoint, sudden changes in dynamics and contrasts between major and minor are all very effective.

Bruckner: Missa Solemnis (1854)

The Monteverdi Choir Hamburg | Israel Chamber Orchestra | Jürgen Jürgens

The  Kyrie in Bruckner’s setting has a much more gentle feel than Mozart’s – sorrowful rather than desperate. Again there is a lot of imitative counterpoint in this work, including some fugues; it’s interesting that this has remained a common feature of mass writing through the centuries. Although I enjoyed listening to it, I felt that some of the parts of the mass lost their way a little, and it didn’t evoke the same level of emotion as the Bach and Mozart masses I listened to.

Renaissance and Baroque Masses

Machaut: Messe de Nostre Dame (c.1365)

Oxford Camerata | Jeremy Summerly | 1996

The first thing that struck me when listening to this very early setting of the mass was the continuous wall of sound – the parts are all singing together almost all of the time. I found that a surprisingly relaxing experience, as I became immersed in the overall sound rather than having my attention constantly switched by different parts coming in and out of focus. The Kyrie is almost all sung on the ‘e’ syllable, with the ‘eleison’ only coming at the very end. It contains quite a bit of syncopation, although sometimes this is rather indistinct when it is being sung on vowel sounds. The harmonies sound unusual to my ear and there are a lot of dissonances throughout the mass, including semitone intervals between the parts in places, which I found quite unexpected. This particular recording was performed in what sounds like a cathedral with a huge amount of reverberation, so that the sound lingers on long after the end of a word – sometimes creating a dissonance in itself. The cadences also particularly stood out to me – there are very few perfect authentic cadences, and instead a characteristic sounding vii – i transition is quite common (vii dim – I in the major modes), as in the final Amen taken here from the end of the Gloria:


DuFay: Missa L’Homme Armé (c.1450)

Oxford Camerata | Jeremy Summerly | 1995

Written almost a century later, DuFay’s setting of the mass is a marked difference in style. Rather than sung as a single word, the words “Kyrie Eleison” are repeated many timeswith the different parts beginning the phrase at different times. Like Machaut’s mass, this one also has a very smooth feel and lots of stepwise melodies, but not all of the voices are used simultaneously which provides a greater variety of textures. There are also remarkably fewer dissonances. “L’homme armé” is a French song that was used as a cantus firmus in this mass – I recognised it from Karl Jenkins’ much more recent setting.

Byrd: Mass for Four Voices (c.1590)

Christ Church Cathedral Choir | Stephen Darlington | 1992

The English composer’s setting is more polyphonic than both of the previous two masses, with some imitative counterpoint. Harmonically it is more like DuFay’s – I didn’t notice any dissonances or unexpected chord transitions. One noticeable feature is the large number of ‘tierce de Picardie’ cadences. I think the polyphony gives more scope for creating climaxes as the music can build up in texture as well as dynamics – this is used to good effect in the Benedictus.

Bach: Mass in B minor (1749)

The Sixteen | Harry Christophers | 2006

Bach’s mass written towards the end of the composer’s lifetime is accompanied by an orchestra, and has a long instrumental introduction before the main Kyrie starts. This is written in imitative counterpoint with the orchestra participating in the imitation as well as the voices, and is based around a recurring theme. The mass also features solo and ensemble singing, such as the Christe Eleison which is a duet between two solo soprano voices. The thick polyphonic textures and addition of the orchestra give this mass a much fuller and richer sound to the earlier masses I listened to. The harmony is less static, changing keys frequently, and parts of the mass such as the Gloria sound more joyful and uplifting than the early masses, making greater use of major keys.

Eduard Tubin: Toccata

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra | Neeme Jarvi | BIS 2002

The Estonian composer wrote this Toccata for symphony orchestra in 1937; I heard it on the radio and decided it was worth a second listen. I found it an evocative piece of music – the driving rhythms in the bass and rapid passing around of the theme convey to me emotions of anger and perhaps even fear. There is a brief reprise around half way through which has some menacing, insistent notes in the brass. A piano is also used to create resonant bass notes. The texture and dynamics drop back again towards the end, before building up to a final climax which makes use of some general pauses for dramatic effect.