Live Reviews: Composers' Choice – Siobhán Cleary

NCH, 16 April 2003
Darragh Morgan (vn), Chris George (vn), Bridget Carey (va), Sophie Harris (vc)

Pawel Szymanski – Two pieces
Gerald Barry – Six Marches
Cleary – The Andalusian Dog
Clear – Its ‘d’ Jim, but not as we know it
Cleary – Carrowkeel
Sofia Gubaidalina – String Quartet No. 2
Wolfgang Rihm – Zwischen den Zeilen
Arvo Pärt – Psalom
Charles Ives – Scherzo
Franco Donatoni – La Souris sans Sourire

Siobhán Cleary’s concert in the excellent Composers’ Choice series consisted of works for the string quartet or solo pieces for violin The evening began very strongly with Pawel Szymanski’s Two Pieces (1982). This work established a number of themes that ran right through the concert. One was the use of the harmonics of the instruments; in the opening half of Syzmanski’s work a contemplative, undulating, the slow drawing of bow over dampened string was used to create an intimate atmosphere. This was the prelude to a very effective plunge into furious activity by all four instruments. The second of the two pieces again used the same technique to establish a trance-like cocoon around the audience, the slowly drawn harmonics enveloped us, and at the same time, a progression up the scale and frissons of activity at the edges of the movement prevented

Second was Gerald Barry’s Six Marches for string quartet. This piece opened with a blunt melody created from four pairs of notes. When this melody had been drummed into our heads, I anticipated its development with characteristic Barry intensity. Instead it was the foundation for a very surprising pizzicato section that was delightful, amusing and whimsical and thoroughly enjoyable. When the more sombre and aggressive sections followed, they were short and did not drown the spirit created from the pizzicato part, in fact adding texture to what was a very effective composition.

Next came Siobhán Cleary’s The Andalusian Dog (1997) for solo violin. When in Spain Siobhán Cleary was commissioned by the Cineteca di Bologna to write the score for the restored 1928 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou. This she did, but as she explained in the pre-concert talk, the restriction of having to write to the dynamics of the visual events left her unsatisfied, feeling that there was more that she wished to express about the subject. As a result she wrote this solo violin work. Following Syzmanski’s piece (with whom she studied in 1994), The Andalusian Dog opens with a slow section making use of the violins harmonics; also in keeping with the Syzmanski it develops more or less up a rising scale – before breaking into a strong outburst extraordinarily demanding on the violinist, the frenetic multiple notes at the finish stretching Darragh Morgan to the limits of the technically possible.

The last work before the interval was Sofia Gubaidalina’s String Quartet No. 2 (1987). The opening to this quartet was very dramatic and immediate, before settling into a section that again had movement up the scale. While not as involving as the works that had come before it, this quartet did have a really interesting period in which the second violin was crying like the wail of an Eastern voice, the regular cycles of this voice being the core around which the other instruments played.

After the break came Siobhán Cleary’s It’s ‘d’ Jim, but not as we know it, for trio and electronics. This work arose out her participation in the Music Technology course at TCD. It had one of the most intelligent use of electronics that I have heard. Far too often the electronic contribution to a piece is either negligible or redundant. In this case it was integral. The stringed instruments were drawing our attention to subtle changes of timbre, of beats and harmonies, microphones were picking up these developments and playing with them, repeating them with delay and distortion, which had the strange effect of both highlighting the sensuality of the music and disturbing it at the same time. This was a strong work

A very short, nonedescript work by Wolfgang Rihm followed, Zwischen den Zeilen (1991), which kept to the predominant theme of the evening through its use of the harmonics of the violin.

The highlight of the concert though, was probably the most untypical selection, that of Arvo Pärt’s Psalom. Although it had a more rapid tempo and sense of development than much of Pärt’s work, this piece was characteristic in that it was based on a simple, beautiful and melancholy melody. A short work, it was nevertheless punctuated with long, carefully considered, moments of silence.

Next came the world premier of Siobhán Cleary’s Carrowkeel, a commission from the NCH. It was clever programming to play this after Pärt because the opening of Carrowkeel continued a mood of introspection. As Siobhán Cleary had explained in the pre-concert talk, Carrowkeel is a cemetery near her residence in Sligo. The greater part of this short work captured a sense of calm and beauty, tinged with sadness. A more agitated section then contrasted with the first part, and although the quartet settled to a quiet finish, it felt like dark water had been violently stirred up and was slow to settle.

A very short, fast, intricate work by Charles Ives followed, (Scherzo) Holding Your Own!, before the final work, Franco Donatoni’s La Souris sans Sourire (1988) – the mouse without a smile. With the exception of the minute Rihm work, the concert had been fascinating and at times, particularly with Pärt’s Psalom, moving. But this final work was something of a disappointment, for a few minutes its fast involved syncopation had an amusing mouse like quality. But this work only deserved the eighteen minutes it took, unrelieved in texture, if it had been written as a soundtrack to Tom and Jerry. This is not to belittle the performance, which was extremely demanding, especially with regard to the tempo, and was impressively played by Darragh Morgan and Chris George on violin, Bridget Carey viola and Sophie Harris on cello.

Published on 1 May 2003

Conor Kostick is a writer and journalist. He is the author of Revolution in Ireland (1996) and, with Lorcan Collins, The Easter Rising (2000).

Sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter to receive our latest news, UK newsreviews, articles, jobs and events.

To add a listing see here. For advertising visit this link.