CD Reviews: Donnacha Dennehy

Elastic Harmonic NMC D133 Joanna MacGregor, Tatiana Koleva, Crash Ensemble, ensemble Intégrales, Darragh Morgan, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Gavin Maloney The direction at the beginning of the score for Glamour Sleeper, the track that opens...
Elastic Harmonic
NMC D133
Joanna MacGregor, Tatiana Koleva, Crash Ensemble, ensemble Intégrales, Darragh Morgan, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Gavin Maloney

The direction at the beginning of the score for Glamour Sleeper, the track that opens this first full-length survey of Dubliner Donnacha Dennehy’s music, reads ‘Attack violently but with panache’. That playful but pointedly made instruction seems wholly apposite for one of the most intelligently eclectic composers of his generation.

Written in 2002, Glamour Sleeper is heard in the version that Dennehy re-worked for German outfit ensemble Intégrales. It explores in typically robust fashion the sonic collisions between (amplified) chamber ensemble and electronics. There’s a hint, a pulsating scent, of Roger Doyle in some of its darker nooks and crannies, but in its bright, buoyantly brusque handling of the material, it could only belong to Dennehy.

Rhythmic vitality, a Dennehy signature, finds exhilarating expression in the following year’s Paddy which plays inventively with the varying timbres and textures of skin, wood and metal instruments, and sounds like a gamelan orchestra on speed. Fleet and febrile, it coils tightly around abrupt exchanges of duplet and triplet rhythms that bounce back and forth against each other, accelerating and decelerating across two ever-changing tempi like electrons colliding in atomic freefall.

1997’s Junk Box Fraud, Dennehy’s inaugural work for his own Crash Ensemble (who deliver it here with proprietorial authority), contrasts the eloquently provocative design of the score – blending clarinet, trombone and a brace each of pianos and voices with electronics – with the chaotic interjections of a seemingly disconnected text written by the composer’s father. Edgy, excitable and entertaining, humour and humanity is never far from the engaging surface of this multi-faceted and deliriously original piece.

The Crash Ensemble also bring a rough-hewn, street-savvy deliberation to 2003’s Streetwalker – a suitably concrete-edged response to the heady, hallucinogen-tinged experience of modern city life that subtly calls Varèse to mind.

Elastic Harmonic, the disc’s title track, is the most recent piece here. It is also the most superficially conventional work; an intensely lyrical violin concerto in all but name. Dennehy constructs some of the most sublime sonorities to be found in contemporary music, each liquescent layer of sound simultaneously fixed to and free from its now reflective, now opaque mirror. It sounds like Vaughan Williams re-worked by Helmut Lachenmann and soloist Darragh Morgan simply shines in this premiere recording.

pAT, written in 2001 for pre-recorded tape and pianist Joanna MacGregor (who reprises it here), is a playful, intricately constructed puzzle that goes to the compelling heart of Dennehy’s music-making. If Junk Box Fraud summons up Joyce, pAT calls Beckett to mind in its, to quote from Bob Gilmore’s excellent and informative booklet notes, ‘amusing atmosphere of purposeless exactitude’.

Performances throughout, from an impressive array of soloists and ensembles, have a biting, pleasingly muscular conviction. As an introduction to Dennehy’s work, this compendium is a timely and welcome release from the ever-enterprising NMC label, one that should do much to further his profile and deserved regard at home and abroad.

Published on 1 July 2007

Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.