Donatoni, Ferneyhough, Cage et al
ABC Classics 465 701-2
reviewed by Stuart Hille
With the exception of the harp, the guitar creates a unique ambience of intimacy when used as a solo instrument. When writing for it, composers often feel the need, partly to counteract its closeness and partly to take advantage of it, to employ rapid changes of tonal range and to examine a huge span of colouristic nuances. They should always bear in mind that because of the instrument’s susurrant quality a ‘piano’ for example, becomes very soft and mysterious or a ‘forte’ penetrating and voiceful. Therefore, extra care needs to be adopted to create a work that utilises these facets in the service of a convincing musical shape.
As we shall see shortly, not all the items on ‘in flagranti’ display a persuasive sense of orientation or direction ( ie. an architecture that can be aurally detected ) but firstly we should note that soloist Geoffrey Morris, no matter the difficulties imposed by various works, shows fleet-footed accuracy and refinement throughout. Nor should we forget the sound engineers and supervisors as the care needed to negotiate this medium requires a delicate sense of sonic footing.
When observing the many colouristic distinctions used by the composers featured on this disc it must be remembered that they are just that – differentia; and if these are used as major structural determinants they quickly become overwrought.
There is one work in particular – David Young’s ‘Jasmine’ – which appears to have missed this point. The leaflet notes inform us that there is considerable intellectual life in the music and this may well be true but it has become enshrouded by glissandi, quarter tones, difficult and wavering harmonics, rapid juxtapositions of dynamics and so forth thus denying the piece a palpable sense of shape.
One appreciates, on paper, Young’s inspiration arising from a jasmine plant and the implication of germination, growth and coup de grace ( the macro and micro musical equivalents being obvious ) but it is lost in the telling and, consequently, the abundance of gestures become self-defeating. And while ‘Jasmine’ is the most
obvious example to take, Young is certainly not alone in the obscuration of a simple image or idea.
Gabriele Manca’s ‘In flagranti’ ( the disc’s namesake ) uses a profusion of gestures and techniques, particularly ‘bottle necking’, in such a way that minor parameters are relied on for major scaffolding, thereby giving the music an amorphousness rather than firm foundation. Also, as with Young’s composition, the length of ‘In flagranti’, as a result of or a perception of meandering dialogue, seems inordinately long.
Similarly, Brian Ferneyhough’s ‘Kurze Schatten II’ ( Short Shadows II ) and Franco Donatoni’s ‘Algo: Due pezzi per chitarra’, while certainly not lacking audible shape, are overextended in duration. Both composers have a firmly established reputation for rationality or calculation. Donatoni is perhaps more accessible or relaxed in attitude and this is mirrored in his music but Ferneyhough has a penchant for complexity. His composition here is no exception and one strongly suspects that the temporal overreach is a result of a convolution that simply took this long to resolve. To reduce it to three movements would create a fine, engaging piece of music. But would, of course, be unthinkable for the composer.
Geoffrey Morris, undaunted by the technical intricacies of any of the works, proves his prowess and responsiveness time and again. There is also a naturalness or unpretentiousness in his approach that one finds refreshing. This is most useful in the rendition of Michael Finnissy’s ‘Two Motets’ ( which, in the disc’s general context, appears to be somewhat naive ).
Deborah Kayser ( soprano ) and Morris combine to give the work gentleness and an improvisatory quality through attention for rhythmic flexibility. Yet one still wonders why the piece, surrounded by the volcanicity of Donatoni, Young, Marca and Ferneyhough, is included in the recording. Not that its presence is unwelcome, just confusing. It is soon realised that its principal rÙle is to act as a foil – a penumbral backdrop for the fireworks to follow.
While the programming of the Finnissy might seem a little contrived, the choice of the final two numbers – ’15 Zwiefache’ by Walter Zimmermann and ‘composed Improvisation’ by John Cage demonstrates doubtless manipulation. The notion of contrast between the rational and the aleatoric, the us/them mentality has gradually undergone integration over the past thirty years resulting in new syntheses, new styles and new attitudes. So to find it resurfacing on a recent recording which begins with Donatoni and ends with Cage and is centred by Ferneyhough and Zimmermann, is not only pedantic but also dated.
A more satisfying format would have been the placement of ’15 Zwiefache’ between ‘In flagranti’ and ‘Kurze Schatten II’. In programming, heterogeneous balance is far preferable to one that draws attention to distinct differences.
In spite of this, there is a great deal here of interest – especially for the connoisseur of late twentieth century guitar music. The enforced historical layout is unnecessary but the album, nevertheless, is an excellent showcase for Geoffrey Morris.
With the exception of the final work, where his improvisatory skills show a need for fine-tuning and a deeper understanding that such music really only requires the need for the performer to act as a conduit for external sounds, he appears to have not only surmounted the athletic demands but has done so with considerable felicity and a fine perception of dynamic counterpoise.
© Stuart Hille 2004.