Intercontinental Ensemble builds an arc of women composers

The CD Arc by the Intercontinental Ensemble is entirely dedicated to music by women composers. It is a recent trend: after ages of neglect, the female composer is finally on the rise. Ensembles, orchestras and musicians whose programmes up to now featured only music by (mainly dead) white males, are suddenly championing their music.

As an advocate of women composers, I naturally applaud every performance and each new recording, though at times they provoke a somewhat wry feeling. The compositions on Arc seem to have been chosen only because they were written by women, they lack inner coherence.

In the CD booklet, the musicians faithfully admit that it was difficult – ‘a nightmare’ – to find a link between the compositions. So, after much deliberation, they chose the title Arc, to indicate that bridges are being built between periods and styles.

One must praise their honesty, but just as with the CD Celebrating Women! released last year by The Hague String Trio, I wish there was a stronger intrinsic motivation. On the positive side though, the musicians have actively sought out repertoire composed by women, and may continue to do so in the future.

Seen from that angle, we can consider the CD as a wonderful adventure, for ourselves and the musicians. Each composition on the disc offers such a totally different sound world that one has to keep adjusting one’s ears.

In Collage van een Achtvlak (Collage of an octahedron) Bianca Bongers constructs a pointillist musicscape from sustained and short notes. This is followed by Drei Romanzen for piano solo by Clara Schumann, in an arrangement by violinist Ernst Spyckerelle for the nine musicians of his ensemble.

The piece comes as a shock, and only after a few minutes do my ears register how cleverly the lyrical melodies from the original are distributed among the four strings and five winds. The third movement, ‘agitato’ in a fast 3/8 metre, is somewhat less effective, though: it lacks Schumann’s passionate, pithy power.

After this utterly romantic composition, my ears have to clear yet another hurdle for the disruptive Emotional Diversity by the Armenian Aregnaz Martirosyan. This expresses her dismay about the war between her homeland and Azerbaijan in 2020 in screeching glissandi, loud banging on the soundboards and frantic blasts from the horns.

Next, Sarah Neutkens immerses us in a bath of melancholy in September, giving horn player Simão Fonseca ample opportunity to display his considerable skills in spun-out lines that lithely traverse from the highest to the lowest registers.

In the concluding Nonet by Louise Farrenc we return to the 19th century: she composed it in 1849, four years before Schumann’s Romanzen. The symphonic proportions of this rather classical work come out well in the punctual and informed performance by the Intercontinental Ensemble. The nine musicians clearly feel completely at ease in this more traditional, tonal language.

The works presented are fascinating enough in themselves, but having to constantly shift one’s listening posture makes it difficult to fully appreciate them. The CD would have been stronger with a different choice and/or order of pieces.

But since now they have found that female composers write substantial and interesting music, surely the musicians will be able to offer a more coherent selection of compositions on their next album.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published ‘Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht’.


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