by Rachel Beaumont

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Suspiciously enjoyable: Explore Ensemble at City

664 love songs
Explore Ensemble
Performance Space, City, University of London
25 February 2020
City page

John Croft, Sextet
Lisa Illean Weather a Rare Blue
Edwin Hiller, Plastica
Horațiu Rădulescu, Lux Animae
Oliver Leith, 664 love songs guaranteed to cure heartache

Firstly, all praise to City’s free music programme. I’ve only been once before but that is my loss. Interesting programmes, strong performers, free – what’s not to like?

I was impressed by the diversity of compositional voices in this programme. There are maybe some similarities between the Croft and the Illea, and between both and the Leith, but even so each piece defined its own distinct character – not a given by any means, especially when the same forces are used. There was also only one piece I substantially didn’t like, a suspiciously high hit rate for a programme of largely new music.

I rather liked the Croft premiere – its structure is clear and straightforward with enough that still surprises, and I enjoyed the central conceit of the piano trying valiantly and failing to hold the other five instruments (string trio, clarinet, flute) to concert pitch. My companion – who wishes it to be known he is called David – was not wrong, however, when he commented that the piece is ‘a bit droopy’; perhaps an inevitable consequence of tuning strings flat, just like the tortuous retune before the next piece.

The Illean, with its recurring pedal notes, feels close kin to the Croft, and programming them next to each other is maybe not wise. Explore Ensemble were more confident in the Illean, which was not a premiere, and the piece has more going on than the simplicity of the Croft – but in part because of this complexity, where the structure was for me a little less followable, I found my attention drifting. Unfairly, no doubt, and I’d like to hear the piece again in a more independent context.

The Hillier, another premiere, was by far the most ambitious piece in the programme (disclosure: Edwin is an old friend). Though that ambition introduced some no-doubt hair-raising moments for performers and composer – a fault with the electronics about halfway through necessitated a re-start – it was refreshing and often thrilling to hear a wildness otherwise absent. In fact I wouldn’t have minded more wildness, to keep me in that Boulez-y happy place, and I wonder if the piece was constrained by the commission’s relatively short ten-minute run-time (no doubt a foolish thing to say given the work involved). It will be interesting to listen again on the radio broadcast (on Radios 3’s New Music Show some time in the future) to get the fullest effect of the pleasingly grockly surround-sound electronics.

The Rădulescu was as enjoyable as ever as the play chases themselves into silence, ably performed by violist Morag Robertson. I’ll take this opportunity also to praise flautist Taylor MacLennan, a steady hand at the tiller as well as deft in Hillier’s extended technique requests, and clarinetist Alex Roberts, who used the HIllier re-start as an opportunity to put his back into it to cheering effect.

The title work, 664 love songs guaranteed to cure heartache for quartet and projector, pleased me not. I might have enjoyed it more without the guaranteed-to-cause-headache projections but even then I’m sceptical: its three movements are all of the same vaguely tonal melancholy, regardless of the captions asserting their difference. I was at first intrigued by this song setting without song, the words on screen tied via click-track to gentle melodies picked out of the ensemble – but the sameyness soon annoyed me, along with it seeming very likely that all the purported statistical analysis (most common words from x songs etc) is surely made up. It’s all the kind of thing that Philip Venables does a lot better, and even then it’s a dangerous game.

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