The Music of Francisco Coll


COLL: Violin Concerto.* Hidd’n Blue. Mural. 4 Ibérian Miniatures.* Aqua Cinerea, Op. 1 / *Patricia Kopatchinskaja, vln; Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg; Gustavo Gimeno, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC 5186951

Scheduled for release on May 21, this disc highlights the eclectic and at times outré music of young Valencian composer Francisco Coll (b. 1985). I might not have gone out of my way to hear and review it had it not included my new favorite living violinist, Patricia Kopatchinskaja.

Judging from the opening of the Violin Concerto, Coll’s music fits into the edgy-atonal style that is all the rage nowadays. The difference is that he, unlike many of his compatriots, writes music that actually develops and goes somewhere. In the liner notes, Coll credits Kopatchinskaja and conductor Gimeno as driving influences in his creative life over the past few years. In addition to this concerto, Coll’s Rizorna, Les Plaisirs Illuminés and Lalulalied all grew out of their friendship and collaboration, thus in a sense the violinist has been an important muse for the composer. I sense a touch of Britten in his music, primarily in his penchant for sparse orchestration and a dramatic sense of construction. And, interestingly, the slow second movement of this concerto has a lyric line which is pulled around by the unusual modern harmonies, yet which continually re-asserts itself as the movement progresses. Eventually, however, the lyrical theme wins out for a while, then the solo violin embarks on some edgy, atonal playing and the orchestra follows suit. The cadenza is a wild one; I wonder if the violinist had any input into its composition. In the last movement, titled “Phase,” the music does indeed phase in and out like rapidly-changing pictures or a kaleidoscope.

Next up is Hidd’n Blue for orchestra. This is another shape-shifting composition in which short, brusque figures are hurled against one another. Although they eventually make up a recognizable pattern, one can scarcely call them themes since Coll is constantly breaking the musical progression off and moving in other directions, sometimes two different directions at once. It ends abruptly in the middle of a phrase.

Mural is much in the same mold as Hidd’n Blue, so much in fact that it could easily be heard as a companion piece. And herein lies the danger of constantly writing in the edgy-atonal style: much of the pieces written in this vein tend to sound so much alike that, despite the subtle differences between them, one hears them as essentially the same piece. If you keep hammering your audience over the head with the same hammer, it’s going to keep making the same impression. (Remember the old song: “Never hit your grandma with a shovel / It makes a bad impression on her mind.”)

With the 4 Iberian Miniatures, composed in 2014, Coll puts the refracting lens of atonality on a jota, fandango and tango, but always in asymmetric rhythms and leaning towards bitonality. Kopatchinskaja is fabulous in this piece, however, making her violin talk as she negotiates her way through the minefield of Coll’s broken rhythms and strange harmonies. This is an excellent series of pieces. It’s sort of like watching a one-legged flamenco dancer on acid. (I know this is going to sound bizarre, but all that kept going through my mind when listening to it was, “I think a few months with a good psychiatrist would do Coll a lot of good.”) I especially liked the third piece, which kept trying to coalesce but ended up breaking apart more and more.

Aqua Cinerea was Coll’s Op. 1, written when he was only 19 years old. He was clearly already himself, experimenting with unusual forms, rhythms and harmonies, but had yet to harness them as well as in his later compositions. It is, however, a bit more mysterious and brooding in mood, less continuously edgy in texture and feeling.

I liked Coll’s music but didn’t really love it. It struck me as a bit too cool and cerebral, and as the late conductor Rafael Kubelik once put it, when you write music like that you’re bypassing the human element and it just becomes “a clever head game that you play with your listeners.” But this style seems to be all the rage today, so this CD should do well in that market. As for the performances, they are splendid in every respect, including the way they were engineered for this recording.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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