Piano Music of Ferneyhough


FERNEYHOUGH: Invention. Epigrams. Sonata for 2 Pianos.* 3 Pieces. Lemma-Icon-Epigram. Opus Contra Naturam. Quirl. El Rey de Calabria / Ian Pace, pno; *add Ben Smith, pno / Métier MSV 28615

This is one of the reasons I enjoy being able to review new recordings, at my leisure, full time: discovering a composer like Brian Ferneyhough, a Briton who has lived in California since 1987, who I’ve never heard of before but who is excellent.

Considered to be the central figure of the “New Complexity movement” (whatever on earth that is), Ferneyhough’s music certainly qualifies. It is consistently atonal with contrasting lines moving against one another but, unlike so many composers in this style, what he writes makes sense to the listener. It is not nearly a forbidding or ugly-sounding, for instance, as the music of the late Elliott Carter, who wrote in a similar style but to my ears usually went nowhere.

A pupil of Lennox Berkeley, another interesting composer (though, I think, much better known), Ferneyhough has been cranking out his startling compositions since the mid-1960s when he was still in his early 20s. As is often the case with music of this sort, however, a bit of time between pieces does the listener good, because each and every work on this 2-CD set is quite dense and requires your full concentration.

A technical description of each piece is not impossible but it is difficult because there is so much going on here that one should, by rights, have a few scores to examine to understand the nuts and bolts of this music. Ferneyhough uses a rhythmic impetus for each piece, but the rhythm, too, is broken up and asymmetric. Truthfully, it’s the kind of music that you appreciate more if you just hear perhaps two or three pieces in a concert. Having two full CDs of it makes great demands on the listener; Ferneyhough almost seems to have written “fuller” musical lines and then gone back and taken things out of them in order to condense and distill it into what you might call a digest form. You constantly get the feeling that there are little pieces missing here that should be present, but I think he is trying to force the listener to imagine those gaps being filled…at least, those listeners who have the wit to do so. Jazz pianist Cecil Taylor did the same thing, but he simply became marginalized by the jazz community. No one invited him to teach at any Hochschule für Musik as they’ve done with Ferneyhough.

Is the music fascinating? Yes, almost continuously so. Is it enjoyable? Well, no, not really. In music this abstract there is no room for feelings or emotion of any kind. The notes are all you get, take them or leave them. You might say that Ferneyhough is the polar opposite of someone like Sorabji, who so filled his musical canvases with every little detail that you not only got a full structure but also gold fixtures in the bathroom, stained-glass windows and an ornate candelabra or three. Ferneyhough gives you a bare Bauhaus structure that is only half assembled, but he leaves hints as to where you might find the missing bits of the walls and ceilings.

If, however, abstract modern classical is your thing, this is surely a must-get album.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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