TRACTS, NMC CD reviews

JAMES ERBER You done torn your playhouse down *
CHRIS DENCH Topologies *


Edward Besania, THE OBSERVER
“Britain’s most uncompromising champion of new piano music tests the limits of mental power and physical prestidigitation in this collection of contemporary pieces by British composers. The thread of pointillism rarely seems far away, most elegantly in Brian Ferneyhough’s Lemma-Icon-Epigram , while Christopher Fox’s lliK.relliK , inspired by the keyboard technique of Jerry Lee Lewis (known as the ‘Killer’, hence the title), requires brain-splitting independence of the hands. A generously filled disc, though I defy anyone to devour it in one sitting.”

Malcolm Troup, PIANO JOURNAL, Issue 65, Summer 2001
“No country can be dismissed as completely philistine if it is capable of fielding even one ranking pianist to hold aloft the torch of contemporary music from his generation to the next. Such a pianist is Ian Pace – maximalist in his gifts as in his allegiances – following in the royal line of David Tudor and Roger Woodward. Indeed, without performers of his indomitable breed to tout their wares, composers on this CD might as well be wasting their substance on the desert air or, worse still, on barren paper – what might otherwise be passed over as mere Papiermusik by some is here brought to full-blooded life by a pianist who quickens all he touches. More than an interpreter, one would have to fall back on the Hindemithian notion of “co-composer” to do justice to the degree of empathy he brings to bear on his performances.

One of the rewards of contemporaneity is that one can be as self-indulgent as one likes in voicing preferences – there is no deadweight of tradition to condition what our response should be. For instance although the recording is, by its very title, plainly buit around the eponymous tract of Richard Barrett (who also doubles as producer of this top-quality recording), I felt that cheeky Christopher Fox ran off with most of the honours on the strength of the “fascinating rhythm” of the lliK part of his lliK.relliK. Beginning like a speeded-up music box, it combines Brazilian-sounding rhythms with hard-nosed melodic profiles. Even common-garden-variety triads are not disbarred at one point while the descending tetrachords towards the end are positively Moussorgskyan in their festiveness. Compared to this, relliK tends to pall – too static, repressed and repetitive – a sort of “son of Philip Glass” though with more worthwhile material.

Messiaen’s adage of “always work in the complex” receives splendid affirmation in Brian Ferneyhough’s Lemma-Icon-Epigram where for the most part tone-clusters and gruppetti replace note-by-note pointillism at a higher level, except in the Icon which relapses into spaced-out Feldmanesque single pitches. Lively and immediately arresting, it never lingers overlong on any of the dynamic or textural changes it rings so resourcefully – one of which has the composer gleefully working from the top (of the keyboard) down only to go promptly into reverse from the bottom up. Both here as elsewhere, Ian Pace made masterful use of the pedals in this pianistic equivalent of piling Ossa on Pelion.

Like an eager child let loose on the instrument, James Erber goes straight for the extreme registers which frame his piece, You done torn your playhouse down, at both ends. Bass ostinati abound under a rich treble descant to which the “double-dotting” gives an almost mock-Baroque feeling. Some of the midway textures have an almost erotic lushness.

For those who doubt the possibility of the 20th/21st centuries giving birth to a truly “transcendental etude”, all I can say is that they haven’t reckoned with my former student Chris Dench, whose Topologies goes off like fireworks (or, better said, cosmic orgasms) all over the place in a total “take-over” of the keyboard. His use of parenthesis made it appear that windows of sound were constantly opening and closing across the whole range, allowing one to sense the molten co-existence of innumerable foci of ongoing activity – what Boulez used to call “hidden polyphony”. Dench, perhaps more than the others, showed the most concern for actual piano sound – “pianistic” in the old-fashioned sense of respect for the piano’s traditional resources and even (terrible dictu!) the suspicion of a guiding purpose.

At times we had the feeling of Nanny Dench leading Pace by the hand through the score in a narrative sense – almost as if an ulterior Schoenbergian hauptstimme had been “written in” to keep him and us on target. Dench, a musician literally “to his fingertips”, knows how to use Pace’s powers to fill the length and breadth of the keyboard in an orgy of incandescent virtuosity. If the price we have to pay is the occasional lapse into “corn” or “effects without causes”, then so be it!

Perhaps the sheer exhilaration of this roller-coaster-ride blunted our ears to some of the high-minded intellectual rigour of the final work to be presented, Richard Barrett’s tract – certainly the most ambitious of all in length and literary programme. But as with so many five-track or five-year plans, the means don’t always justify the end. tract I begins vociferously enough as a study in interlocked chords or tremolandi-of-chords chasing each other around the upper reaches of the piano (never, since Messiaen, have chords as such come in for such a field-day as in every work on this recording!) – an immensely more complex version of Villa-Lobos’s writing in Polichinelle from his Prolé do Bébé. Yet for all the “sounding brass”, one looked in vain – with the sole exception of lacunae – for the “gold” of silence. hypothesis, the first of the six sections into which tract II is divided, retreated to a more pointillist perspective. The second, husk, raked up the past in the shape of Beethoven’s op. 109 and op. 111 sonatas to which the composer also returns in lacunae. Here the descending fourth of Beethoven’s Arietta is tarted up by trills aping the original – not apparently with any Maxwell-Davies-like intention of sending it up – the effect being the very antithesis of the serenity and sublimity of Beethoven’s trills. Finally, as heard so murmured suffers from a lack of rhythmic interest – just a viscous soup of sound against which individual pitches identify themselves in seemingly desultory fashion – a process presumably necessary to the composer in fulfilment of his “programme” but one which has long since forfeited the listener’s concern.

So the all-round hero of the piece – of this and all the others – remains Ian Pace, our knight errant of the keyboard sans peru et sans reproche who once again has entered the CD lists in defence of the cause of contemporary music in general and of five of its front-ranking composers in particular. With the death of Xenakis, it is comforting to know that there are still composers out there – let alone pianists – preoccupied for the future of the piano and prepared to force the pace (no pun intended!) as much as did Liszt, Charles Ives, John Cage, Messiaen and Stockhausen in their day.”

“Ian Pace is a powerful advocate for ‘hard-edged’ contemporary piano music, in which he is an acknowledged leader at the keyboard, and also a prolific writer. He has just given a five-hour marathon Finnissy recital and this uncommonly well-filled CD is a perfect introduction to the esoteric field in which he flourishes.
The programme is a personal choice devoted to music by British composers, with all of whom he has worked closely. It begins with Fernyhough, whom I usually enjoy, and do so here, but can’t explain quite why. Perhaps Pace can? He tells us, in a typically thoughtful, illuminating essay, that this music which he admires (Birtwistle, Dillon, Saunders, Skempton are a few other favourite composers, a very disparate group) emphasises clarity of line, is unsettling in structure, stimulates and challenges rather than soothes and consoles. A different world from what many readers seek of their CD purchases. But read on.

Pace believes also that it is not unnecessarily arcane, using as it does contrasts of dynamics, register and texture, providing ‘immediacy exceeding that of conventional tonality’. There is the wide gulf to be bridged – and an approach to doing so.

Variety in plenty is there to find, contrived defamiliarisation of romantic & serial gestures, recast jazz/rock styles, delicate finger work as well as repetitive, rhythmic pounding, and Tract, a half hour work by Richard Barrett which seems to require a separate brain for each finger! This is all exciting music ‘which forces pianists to expand tactile, emotive and intellectual range’.

You are unlikely to enjoy it all but you will surely marvel at Ian Pace’s virtuosity. It is all about sound (which is readily perceived) and structure (which demands expert knowledge to be fully understood). Forget the latter, and discard your belief in received wisdoms that Liszt’s transcendency (whether hard or made easier), Balakirev’s Islamey , Rach 3, & Chopin Godowskied, represent the ultimate in pianistic demands – not in this century, nor at the end of the last, they don’t!

What right does an amateur pianist/scribbler have to appraise Pace’s performance, or to convey its character in words. Or indeed to take a view about the recording, made in an acoustic chosen and ‘specially created’ in a Tilburg studio by composer/producer Richard Barrett, who is unlikely to have let Pace get away with many mistakes in his Tract, ‘one of the most demanding piano works ever composed’? Ian Pace is a fine pianist with a wide repertoire of music through past ages as well as of now, and his manner seen playing is always quiet and undemonstrative, taking it all in his stride with apparent ease.”

“Pace is drawn to the most daunting modern repertoire, of which these five works are a fair cross section. Four of the composers are associated with New Complexity, an expressionist style typified by severe polyphony, elaborate rhythm and shock-horror foudness for extremes of register. Brian Ferneyhough’s Lemma-Icon-Epigram, though initially impressive for its rippling delicacy, sets the tone, and Chris Dench’s Topologies sustains it. Jemes Erber’s You done torn your playhouse down is brief and strongly made, while Christopher Fox’s lliK-relliK intriguingly engages minimalism and pop music. Richard Barrett’s Tract is the most ambitious item: a remarkably clear structure, haunted by Beethoven and Becket, whose second part (coming after a full minute’s pause, a genuine “tract of time”) distorts and effaces the first.”

“Ian Pace is well known for his performances of some of the most challenging contemporary piano works. NMC have just released a disc of his performances of hard-edged works for solo piano by Brian Ferneyhough, Christopher Fox, Richard Barrett, James Erber, and Chris Dench. Tricky music, played with great virtuosity [NMC D066].