rush hour Concerts Peter Nelson Alasdair Spratt
Beethoven Brahms Thursday 2 & 9 February 2012
Thursday 2 February, 6pm Programme Peter Nelson Lost Landscapes Beethoven Septet in E Flat Major (op 20) Performers Violin Viola Cello Double Bass Clarinet Bassoon Horn
Lesley Hatfield Catherine Marwood William Conway Enno Senft Jean Johnson Ursula Leveaux Steve Sterling
Thursday 9 February, 6pm Programme Alasdair Spratt The Black Tree Brahms String Quintet in G Major (op 111) Performers Violin 1 Violin 2 Viola 1 Viola 2 Cello
Ania Safonova Sarah Bevan-Baker Catherine Marwood Fiona Winning William Conway
Would audience members please ensure that all mobile phones and other devices that may become audible during the performance are fully turned off.
Thank you for coming to support us in giving a platform to new works alongside established favourites. Although the layout of Beethoven’s inspired early Septet resembles that of a classic ‘light’ divertimento, he rarely resembled any other composer such was his bold originality and visionary leadership in the field of composition. The scoring used by Beethoven allows an opportunity to add a new piece for this relatively rare combination of instruments and Peter Nelson has done so, taking 19th century texts of travel as his inspiration. Brahms thought that his op 111 String Quintet would be his final work, believing his compositional ideas to have ‘dried up’ but luckily for us he found inspiration and produced this instantly successful, stirring quintet. Alasdair Spratt was inspired by a short 20th century poem by Sorley MacLean when writing his new piece. Will these new pieces stand the test of time as their earlier counterparts have done? At this stage we cannot say but the ‘birth’ of any new work is exciting, adding to the wonderful bank of works that regularly stimulate, provoke and soothe us all. We hope you enjoy the concert and that we can welcome you back soon. With best wishes William Conway
Peter Nelson Lost Landscapes (2011) Thursday 2 February
i “The earth is overloaded with vegetation: nothing prevents its development.” ii “…crocodile and boa are masters of the river…” iii “…a living nature where man is nothing ...” iv “The monotony of these steppes is imposing, sad and oppressive. Everything appears motionless; only now and then from a distance does the shadow of a small cloud promising rain move across the sky.” v “A few minutes after the first shock there was a violent gust of wind, accompanied by flashes of lightning and large raindrops.” vi “A deep calm reigned in those lonely places, but nature’s calm contrasted with the painful feelings agitating us.” Quotations from: Alexander von Humboldt, translated and abridged by Jason Wilson.  Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. Penguin Books, 1995. In June of 1799, as Beethoven was beginning work on his Septet op 20, the German scientist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, set off for the Americas, the first non-Spaniard to be allowed into the Spanish territories of the New World. He and his companion, Aimé Bonpland, spent over five years travelling the rivers of Venezuela and Brazil, through Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Cuba. These travels into virgin plains, mountains and rain-forests, and contacts with the indigenous populations
and the Spanish immigrants, were the source of all von Humboldt’s later work. Thanks to his breadth of understanding, and his ability to construct a large, ecological view from a mass of detail, von Humboldt became one of the most celebrated scientists of the 19th century. The art historian, Tom Tolley, has pointed out that Joseph Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher, was also fascinated by the idea of foreign travel. On his trips to London in the 1790s, freed from the confines of the Esterhazy court, he acquired maps and travel books, and consorted with sailors and travellers. According to one of his earliest biographers, Haydn even gave one of his symphonies a “hidden programme” involving a voyage to undiscovered lands and contact with the native inhabitants. According to the pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen, “It is above all through landscape that music joins Romantic art and literature.” Both Haydn and Beethoven experienced the allure of landscape, as von Humboldt, who was to chart scientifically the structures of its habitats, nevertheless remained overwhelmed by its sheer beauty. In his Symphony No 6 Pastoral, Beethoven attempts a specific, if idealised relationship between music and landscape. As he himself wrote, “More the expression of feeling than painting” (written on the title page of the first violin part used at the symphony’s first performance). In this defense against the critics of “mere tone-painting”, Beethoven is echoing the thoughts of the great German poet and critic, Friedrich Schiller, who wrote, some ten years earlier, “There are
two ways that nature without living creatures can become a symbol of the human: either as a representation of feelings or as a representation of ideas.” My piece, Lost Landscapes, tries to pick up this fascination for the natural world in Haydn and Beethoven, in the context of a humanistic concern, evident in both Beethoven and von Humboldt, for the intimate relationship between people and the land they inhabit. It also tries to learn something from the programmatic aspects of 19th century music, in terms of both feelings and ideas, concerning our position on our own, now devastated, planet. The piece is in five sections that play continuously, each section associated with an image from von Humboldt’s account of his travels in South America. These images bear some resemblance to the images associated with the movements of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, though the landscape in question is markedly different in each case. Thus the “Scene by the brook”, with its gentle rippling and serenity of setting is countered by von Humboldt ‘s remark that, “crocodile and boa are masters of the river”. This is not so much an image of danger as an indication that the majesty of the river is outwith the control of humans. Similarly the thunderstorm that disrupts Beethoven’s scene of peasant merrymaking gives way to von Humboldt’s description of an earthquake in Cumana, a scene where the earth and the heavens are both complicit in a violent tremor that threatens the very landscape itself. In the hundred or so years since Haydn and Beethoven, the prejudice against “mere
tone-painting” in music has not gone away. Indeed even Donald Francis Tovey went to some pains to absolve the Pastoral Symphony of any implication that it was anything other than “pure musical form”. This piece operates on the same slippery edge: the ensemble of Beethoven’s Septet invites nostalgia and evocation, and a century or so of film music has bequeathed us a rich store of clichéd imagery. Nevertheless, as in von Humboldt’s descriptions of the rivers and forests of the Orinoco region, there is something more difficult and dangerous under the surface. If Beethoven’s landscape has people firmly planted in it, von Humboldt’s is explicitly “without man”, though his sense of desolation is mitigated by his intimate engagement with observation of the finest details of plant and animal life, temperature and humidity, altitude, geological foundation and topographic structure. His view is a profoundly humanistic combination of Romantic feeling and scrupulous measurement. If Beethoven’s association of music with landscape seems to propose the land as the ground onto which the “brotherhood of man” is fastened, von Humboldt sees the place of human beings as being much more precarious. © Peter Nelson 2012
Peter Nelson (b1951)
Peter Nelson was born in Glasgow, and is currently Professor of Music and Technology and Head of Music at the University of Edinburgh. Through the 1980s he was an associate of les Ateliers UPIC, the computer studio of Iannis Xenakis, with which he toured internationally, composing music for the UPIC system, and giving concerts and workshops. His compositional output includes orchestral, instrumental, vocal and electronic music, sometimes involving interactive computer systems. He has received commissions from many leading performers and ensembles including the BBC, Radio France, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the Dunedin Consort. He is also editor of the international journal, Contemporary Music Review.
Beethoven Septet in E Flat (op 20) Thursday 2 February
Beethoven composed his Septet in 1799 – 1800, as he entered his thirtieth year. He had taken the Viennese by storm with his skill at keyboard improvisation, had produced his first two piano concertos, and was about to begin work on his First Symphony. The Septet brought to a conclusion his first big series of chamber music compositions, which by then included four piano trios, five works for string trio, and the pairs of compositions for wind octet and for two oboes and English horn, as well as the six string quartets of op 18. The Septet, dedicated to the Empress Maria Theresia (not the famous monarch, who had died twenty years earlier, but the wife of the Emperor Franz), became his most popular work in any form and remained so for some time. In later life Beethoven remarked that he wished it had been burned, and when a would-be patron, after the premiere of the Eighth Symphony, offered him a handsome fee to compose “something in the more agreeable style of the Septet” he expressed proper outrage. Spohr, Hummel and others did continue to compose works on this model, though, and without it we might not have had the masterly Octet of Schubert’s maturity (in his case, about the same age as Beethoven at the time he composed his Septet), a work whose depth and proportions might be said to have kept pace with Beethoven’s own progress after this last big gesture in the “more agreeable style” of the eighteenth century.
The six-movement layout here is more or less that of the classic divertimento, but, as Heinz Becker observed several decades ago, “the music seems to have left the superficial virtuosity of earlier divertimenti behind, and to have moved to the warmer region of symphonic thought.” All six movements are too straightforward to require analysis, but it may be noted that the third movement, always the most popular section of the work, is an adaptation of the minuet in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in G major, op 49, No 2 (a work composed much earlier than its misleading opus number might suggest), and that the theme of the splendid set of variations that constitutes the fourth movement became one of the several Beethoven melodies adapted for use as songs by other musicians. © Richard Freed
Alasdair Spratt The Black Tree Thursday February 9
Having been asked by Hebrides Ensemble to write a piece to partner the Second String Quintet by Brahms, I found myself incredibly excited as well as feeling rather intimidated. Brahms is, after all, one of the great figures, and writing a piece to be partnered with an existing work involves a lot more than the consideration of surface issues such as using the same instruments, or writing a piece of similar length or scope, or merely giving some kind of a ‘musical nod’ as it were. I wanted my piece, whilst carving out a solid identity of its own, to have some kind of deeper connection with Brahms, the man as well as the music. Brahms felt a keen sense of living and working in the shadow of Beethoven, which inevitably hampered his creativity, most famously with regards his First Symphony. In writing this new piece I found myself relating to this feeling, albeit on a much less grand or accomplished scale. I certainly avoided refamiliarising myself with the sound of the Brahms until I had at least conceived some kind of sound-world of my own for the new work. Despite my best efforts, I found that I had set up a psychological barrier for myself. It was once said to me that one way of jumping such hurdles is to imagine sitting in the audience at the premiere, watching the players come onto the stage, sitting down and making their preparations for performance. In the visualisation of my new piece I became conscious of all the wood on stage: such finely crafted beautiful wood, smooth and perfected. But stretched over this wood were the strings, strings in which there is an extraordinary amount of tension.
Brahms intended to retire from composing in 1890, and the op 111 quintet was to be his last work. The idea of the ‘finality’ with which Brahms approached this piece is something that I found resonated with many ideas that recur in my own music. I’ve written a number of pieces that explore the notion of finality, in an abstract way as well as in relation to the fragility of the human condition. Requiem and Postlude (2006), a secular piece setting poetry of Philip Larkin and Sorley MacLean alongside liturgical text, is a work of mourning and of aspiration. During the writing of this piece, Brahms’ own Ein deutsches Requiem was never far from my thoughts. Brahms’ Requiem is a monumental work, also deviating from the traditional liturgy, and whilst remaining a sacred piece it contains a strong humanist ethos. In addition to the settings that I wrote as part of the Requiem, I have always been drawn to particular phrases in MacLean’s poems, powerful pictures on which to build ideas for instrumental pieces. It was Sir Harrison Birtwistle who encouraged my love of MacLean. I remember a discussion with Harry during which we spoke of the wealth of imagery contained within a poem called ‘The Tree of Strings’. Birtwistle has since written a string quartet using that very title. Given my thoughts of ‘finality’ and what this might mean, matters of ‘faith’ religious or otherwise, and with the imagery of the wood and the tension in my mind, I found myself naturally drawn towards ‘The Black Tree’.
The Black Tree (translation) Christ’s cross of crucifixion has been spiking Europe’s heart for the course of two thousand years, tearing the wounded spirit; and the rotting of a harlot’s disease bruises it in a black way that sees no proud mind overcoming the frail sore body. There is an extraordinary amount to consider in this short poem, and justice certainly cannot be done in this space. A man has been stretched over the wood. The poem does not make specific reference to the violence and finality of the act itself, however, the vulnerability and suffering of the individual is clear, and partly through this, the vulnerability and suffering of humanity is clear. There is a sense of repercussion: the many burdens that humanity carries on its shoulders, and the sense of humanity having a lot on its conscience. Liturgically speaking, Christ’s sacrifice as Paschal Lamb allows for a reconciliation of wayward humankind with God, combining the demand for perfect justice with the quality of perfect love. Outwith a religious framework, the notion of self-sacrifice for the greater good is something held in high regard by many different cultures. Despite our mortality, the consequences of our actions, good and bad, will live on. Blackened, burnt wood nourishes the soil. ‘Hope’ can and does prevail.
Brahms, on the surface, had a fairly ambiguous attitude towards religion, and it seemed fitting to write a piece that reflected this: an acknowledgement of the inspiration that he drew from religious texts, whilst emphasising a humanist approach. What is clear is that the fruits of Brahms’ creative output constitute a great legacy – his music prevails. Maybe these musings will mean something to the listener, maybe they won’t. I know that if you peek through a window, you must be prepared to see something. As a review I read recently rightly pointed out, the modern world is heavy on emotional confessional honesty, but rather light on the ‘considered analysis’. I hope that my piece, whilst drawing on these thoughts derived from the poem, manages to strike a good balance in relating the power of raw feeling amid subtleties, complexities, and the need for reflection within us all. It is shaped by, but not limited to the ideas and feelings influencing its conception; it is not a narrative, other than being a narrative of its own coming into being. And so here it is, my youngest, and as such, most fragile child. I present The Black Tree, in all its own unashamed honesty and vulnerability. ‘The Black Tree’ by Sorley MacLean is reproduced by kind permission of Carcanet Press. © Alasdair Spratt 2012
Alasdair Spratt (b1981)
Alasdair’s musical training began as a chorister at the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, Newcastle upon Tyne, and continued at St Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh, where he studied composition, piano, violin and flute. In 1998 he won an Entrance Award to study composition at the Royal Northern College of Music under Anthony Gilbert and subsequently David Horne, winning the Rothschild Scholarship in his first year and the Mrs Leo Grindon Prize in his third, before going on to graduate with first-class honours and receiving the Principal’s Prize. Alasdair’s works range from solo and chamber music pieces through to a piano concerto. His music has been performed by groups such as Ensemble Bash, the Fidelio Trio, the Goldberg Ensemble, the Hebrides Ensemble, Liquid Architecture, the London Sinfonietta, the National Youth String Orchestra of Scotland, the Paragon Ensemble, Psappha and Symposia, and in festivals such as the Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte di Montepulciano in Italy, the Edinburgh Festival, the St Magnus Festival on Orkney, Sound in Aberdeen, and Musica Nova and Plug in Glasgow, to great critical acclaim. His choral works have been sung in cathedrals around Britain.
Alongside teaching, Alasdair has co-written and delivered large-scale education projects. He has been commissioned to write pieces for the younger listener, and for special-needs students. Alasdair continues his educational work through his role as a pianist in ballet schools, and giving workshops on aspects of music and improvisation in the context of dance. Alasdair attended the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in 2004, working with Louis Andriessen. Alasdair has benefited from lessons and masterclasses with those such as Michael Finnissy, Elena Firsova, Rolf Hind, Simon Holt and James MacMillan. After completing his degree, Alasdair was privileged in receiving compositional guidance from Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Alasdair won the Philharmonia Prize for composition in 2004, after a premiere at the Royal Festival Hall played by the Zephyr Ensemble. He was a founding member of the Glasgow-based contemporary music group Ensemble Thing.
In 2004, with the aid of a Ralph Vaughan Williams Scholarship and an extended Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music Scholarship, Alasdair completed his MMus at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), studying with John Maxwell Geddes. He completed a doctorate in 2008, through the RSAMD and University of St Andrews, studying with Gordon McPherson in Glasgow, and Martijn Padding at the Koninklijk Conservatorium in Den Haag. Alasdairâ€™s submission was accepted by the examination panel and the university without the recommendation of any revisions or corrections, either typographical or substantial. Alasdair is privileged to have received further scholarships from the RSAMD Trust, The Robertson Trust, The McGlashan Charitable Trust, The Hope Scott Trust, and the Colonel MacLean Trust Scheme 1980, Logan and Johnston and was honoured to be the recipient of a Dewar Arts Award in August 2007. ÂŠ Alasdair Spratt
Brahms String Quintet in G Major (op 111) Thursday February 9
i Allegro ma non troppo, ma con brio ii Adagio iii Un poco Allegretto iv Vivace ma non troppo presto “I’ve been tormenting myself for a long time with all kinds of things, a symphony, chamber music and other stuff, and nothing will come of it. Above all, I was always used to everything being clear to me. It seems to me that it’s not going the way it used to. I’m just not going to do any more.” These words, said by Brahms to his friend and editor Eusebius Mandyczewski, relate something of a sense of frustration and exasperation. Brahms had intended to retire from composing in 1890, and the second string quintet was to be his final composition. However, no matter how troublesome he may have found the circumstances of writing, the resultant work is an undoubted masterpiece of the repertoire and it betrays nothing of the creative difficulties that he experienced. The passion felt by Brahms is evident at the outset. The Quintet opens with a luscious rocking texture in the violins and violas over a forthright cello melody. The cello must particularly assert itself in order to compete with the rest of the group, as was noted at the time of the premiere. However, the striving in the nature of this part communicates a certain aspiration to the listener, and the musical effect is exhilarating and uplifting.
This excitement eventually gives way to a more gentle second subject melody first played by the two violas, taken up shortly thereafter by the violins. The rocking – which is a feature permeating the movement – returns rather more gently, heralding the development. Arpeggiated figures are passed around the ensemble, and harmonic stability is once again found in the closing, which is no less thrilling than the opening. The second movement, as one might expect, is more reflective in mood than the first, and the slightly sombre tone of the first viola is given due importance of place from the beginning. This movement can almost be heard as a kind of theme and variations, the opening melody returning time and again cast in slightly different lights. There is an allusion to gypsy folk melodies here, carefully balanced within the idiom of the movement as a whole. Un poco Allegretto is lighter and more playful than the Adagio, although again with a rather serious underlay. Essentially following the symphonic ‘minuet and trio’ format, the minuet material continues to hark towards a Romany melody.
The fourth and final movement is again pervaded by a rocking figure. The ear is never quite allowed to settle, constantly working to follow the ever-changing rhythmic framework. Is it overly fanciful to think that the changeability here points towards Brahmsâ€™ possible unrevealed unease at the prospect of retiring? Whether this notion contains any truth or not, what is important is that, luckily for us, this was not to be his final work. The Second String Quintet contains writing that is almost symphonic in scope, both from an ensemble and structural point of view, and yet without any compromise of the sense of the intimate chamber nature of the work. The handling of the instruments, the thematic development throughout, the daring, and above all the depth of feeling related from beginning to end is Brahms at his most mature and masterful. ÂŠ 2012 Alasdair Spratt
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Hebrides Ensemble is Scotland’s foremost contemporary music group, specialising in new, twentieth and twenty-first century chamber music, music-theatre and chamber opera. Led by the cellist and conductor William Conway and drawing upon the finest musicians within Scotland and Europe, Hebrides Ensemble is a flexible and intimate group, dedicated to presenting chamber music in new and interesting ways. The ensemble tours frequently to venues as far-flung as St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney to the Wigmore Hall in London, performs at international festivals and broadcasts and records regularly.
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