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Brian John Peter Ferneyhough is an English composer of contemporary classical music. His complex, multi-layered music is distinctive and his output spans many genres of contemporary music, from chamber works to orchestral pieces. Between 1987 and 1999 he was Professor of Music at the University of California at San Diego. As of 1999, he is William H. Bonsall Professor in Music at Stanford University. For the 2007-08 academic year, he was appointed Visiting Professor at the Harvard University Department of Music.
by Carl Rosman
Digital Booklet: Brian Ferneyhough: Chamber Music
Digital Booklet: Brian Ferneyhough: Chamber Music
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Top Customer Reviews
Ferneyhough's music is unabashedly "atonal" and "complex", and to some it may seem like the very picture of the academic avant-garde. It is certainly a niche taste, but if you are the sort of listener who takes to his sound, then the sheer information-dense quality of his scores means that you'll get endless relistening value from his music, discovering something new on each hearing.
My gateway to Ferneyhough was "La Chúte d'Icare" and chamber ensemble (1988), a delightful work where a clarinetist plays continually an ascending and descending line as the other instruments provide shifting accompaniment that suggests complex canons. At the end, after a section of shockingly periodic rhythms for this composer, the percussionist patters loudly on the bongos: Icarus has fallen into the sea. Armand Angster is the clarinetist here; he was also the dedicatee of the piece. I slightly prefer the sound on the Kairos disc where the ELISION ensemble perform, and clarinettist Carl Rosman there had had a longer time to grapple with the demands of the piece, but the Etcetera recording with the Nieuw Ensemble is still worth hearing. (The Accord recording with the Ensemble Contrechamps takes a distant third place).
"Terrain" (1992) is similar, except the solo instrument is a violin. Ferneyhough's writing for violin, with lots of artificial harmonics and microtones, offers a playfully luminous quality, like specks of sunlight reflecting off a lake. (A comparison to Sciarrino would be apt here.) While its musical argument is knottier than the clarinet concerto, we do pass through a distinct series of landscapes as befits the title, and in the last minutes everything palpably winds down until the violinist says farewell with a short but definitive phrase. This recording strikes me as slightly better than that by violinist Irvine Arditti and the Nieuw Ensemble on an old Montaigne disc. Graeme Jennings was the second violinist of the Arditti Quartet for some time and has been able to spend long years with Ferneyhough's music, and this recording reflects that extensive experience.
"Incipits" for viola and ensemble (1996) is different from the previous two pieces in that instead of a continuous sounding of the soloist over a very busy ensemble, most of the piece consist of duets between the violist and the percussionist. Only at a few points do we hear the remaining instruments: flute, clarinet, two violins, cello and double bass. Elison premiered this piece back in the Nineties, and their performance here is a relatively tight, at . It contrasts greatly with the recording by the Ensemble Recherche on a Stradivarius disc that is nearly three minutes longer and has a sense of rubato that makes the piece sound rather more poignant.
The remaining music has the spotlight on the guitar. "Les Froissements d'Ailes de Gabriel" for solo guitar and ensemble (2003) is an extract from Ferneyhough's opera "Shadowtime" on the life and thought of Walter Benjamin. But although the guitar is the solo instrument, I found the writing for brass (trumpet, soprano trombone, trombone, and bass trumpet) to be just as memorable; Ferneyhough had never dedicated so much attention to this instrument family before. Due to the drama in the opera, this piece was conceived a deliberate series of non sequitors: over a few bars a very distinct texture is established, only to then be abandoned for something new. Some of these myriad fragments have a curious beauty to them, others are zany and mapcap, while still others remind me of Boulez's "Pli selon pli" or the extremely compressed pieces of Kurtág. Because it has so many different soundscapes over its 17-minute span, this is a rich, fun piece and really stands out among the avant-garde music of the last decades.
"Les Froissements d'Ailes de Gabriel" had featured a second, "shadow" guitar in the ensemble, tuned a quarter-tone down. "no time (at all)" for guitar duo (2004), with which this disc is filled out, extracts that interplay in an independent work. The most engaging feature of the work are the stereophonic effects.
Kairos's booklet is fairly detailed, giving some context and brief information about the pieces, as well as some facsimiles from the scores so you can see just how challenging Ferneyhough's music can be. As I said, Ferneyhough's music is very much a niche taste, but if you like 20th-century modernism in general, give him a try, and this disc is delightful for fans.
It is important to say that all of these pieces (except one) have already been recorded. I will briefly compare these versions with the other ones available, since this is the kind of stuff I am most preocuppied when buying. But please keep in mind that the "definitive version" rhetoric rarely makes sense, and especially with pieces of this depth and complexity. For the density of the musical events is sometimes such that by giving more importance to a gesture than to another at any given point (and the interpreter must do this all the time), the music changes more from one interpretation to the other than one would expect. This is one of the beauties, I would say, of classical music in general, but it is nice to see that it applies to this kind of hypermodernist expression as well.
There are currently two versions of this incredible mini violin concerto; the other one is with the mighty Irvine Arditti. I am sorry that orange record with the 4th quartet is now out of print... It is gorgeous.
Now, the two versions are clearly quite different. I feel Graeme Jennings' one is more vibrant and muscular (i'd say its like a second order sports event on top of a sophisticated, fragile ground of gesture speculation); it has a wonderful, elegant energy to it, while Irvine Arditti's is more bitterweet (you can tell he is older, more seasoned). In the Arditti rendition the music is almost sad, which is a rather unfrequent (for me) feeling in Ferney, that is, sad without trying to be witty and despite all the surface activity. I like both approaches; I see them as complementary.
But Graeme certainly plays the begining of the piece more convincingly, very forcefully, without loosing detail despite the exhuberant display of energetic playing. On the other hand, the violin part is for the most part blended with the ensemble in a clearer way -you get to hear more detail- in the Arditti version (and the ensemble is also a bit more articulated in that orange record; even jazzy sounding in a couple of spots -this is a big plus for me). But Irvine, with all of his experience and sophistication, can be a bit dry as well... I'll give you a striking example: I had never noticed the sublime beauty of Terrain's ending. That's because it is just not really there in the Arditti version (I sense a little lack of stamina toward the end). Honestly, this ending must be among Ferney's most beautiful moments, and to me worth the price of the new record alone.
In any case, in both versions you get the feeling that these men, who as you must know played together in the Arditti quartet for more than a decade, understand Ferneyhough's music better than anyone else today, being able to render highly individualised performances of a stunninigly difficult piece.
2) No time (at all):
This is a piece for two guitars; it is the only one in this record that is not a miniconcerto. It features here nevertheless for it is connected with "Les froissements", sharing some of it's materials. It is also the only piece that is not recorded anywhere else. I wasn't expecting much (for some reason I never expect much of solo pieces, even if Ferneyhough keeps surprising me with little solo gems every once in a while), but ended up listening to it quite frequently. Ok, I like it very much. I'd say it is at least as good as the piece for guitar featured in the Arditti record with the string quartet (probably better).
3) La chute d'Icare
I don't know why I didn't use to think much of this one (it has been recorded once in a record that is now out of print I believe). It is a powerful piece for clarinet and small ensemble, the oldest one here (it is form 88 - all the others are from the 90's or 00's). It is curious... when I first heard it its complexity struck me, but now retrospectively I think it is totally standard for Ferney complexity-wise. Terrain's solo part is something else, for example. No, what strikes me now is how beautiful and expressive it is. And this version is even more appealing than the previous one, more clearly articulated, with little timbral subtleties that made me fall in love it at last. Note for exampe that the climax around minute four is rendered in a much more satisfying way in the the Elision version. Also, the "shout" of the soloist around minute six. It finally sounds almost like a free jazz sound. Very cool.
Just another detail: this one, as well as Les Froissements, features the piano; I mention it not only because Ferneyhough's piano writing is excellent but also because Marylin Nonken is the pianist of the Elision Ensemble, and she is very good. You will notice the difference in quality of the piano playing immediately.
There are three readings of Incipits that I know of; the other two are: a) the one featured in a record with Flurries and the trio, and b) the one by Ensemble exposé. So I guess it is one of Ferney's most recorded compositions, and with good reason. Incipits contains in my opinion some of Ferney's most lyrical moments (it reminds me by spots a bit of the voiceless parts of Le marteau); thus, I like it played with delicacy, not fast and self consciously hypermodern. Now, the percussion part is difficult to blend well with the small ensemble, to make sense of it, so this is an important point as well. My verdict: althought this version is good, the most impressive one in both of these areas is the one by Ensemble exposé, hands down. In fact I'd say it is the only one where the use of the percusion fully makes sense.
Perhaps this is the weakest spot of the album, even if, I must insist, the performance is not bad at all.
5) Les froissements d'ailes de Gabriel
This was to me the big surprise of the album. I have heard Les froissements in Shadowtime, but it sounds very different here. It is a sort of mini guitar concerto; lyrical, free floating, unrigorous in a poetical way, not concerned with impressing anyone with it's complexity, just trying to convey beautiful, inspired music - and yes, you really hear the rustling of an angel's wings! Those little timbral sophistications are worthy of a Lachenmann (although the styles of these men differ greatly), but they are not at all the focus of the piece as happens sometimes with the german guy, just little brush strokes here and there, very effective.
Well, this is quite long already. I just want to finish by saying that you need not be afraid by Ferneyhough's style at this point. Sure, he has some difficult pieces (for example the string quartets, although they are very likable as well), but the truth is that he is becoming more lyrical and melodious every year. This record shows that very well.
What a moron I was. There is nothing wrong with this version of Incipits! I was so into the version of Ensemble Exposé that I couldn't hear it's gorgeosity. It may in fact be the best one on the market. (Thanks to Etha and Michael for casting doubts on this stubborn opinion of mine)