Full Reviews for "Choral Works" by Brian Ferneyhough


Brian Ferneyhough’s music is often boxed into that airless and unappetizing category called “New Complexity”. But as this CD makes clear, it inhabits a rich and roomy imaginative world. A fascination with Renaissance music, thoughts about history and memory, the tragic history of the 20th century and the role of intellectuals within it – these are the concerns of the four choral pieces on this CD, which are culled from the extreme ends of Ferneyhough’s career.

Here, there are two very early works from the 1960s, including the astonishing Missa Brevis, which is a veritable compendium of modernist vocal techniques. The 12 solo lines leap about in jagged intervals, in complex rhythms, often employing micro-tones. This performance generates an intense expressive heat, shot through with passages of icy calm – like the astonishing moment in the Kyrie where two sopranos to a perilous but perfectly-tuned interval. Alongside the purely choral works are two pieces drawn from Ferneyhough’s recent opera Shadowtime, which are very different – meditative, tinged with tragedy, and in Stelae for Failed Time suffused with fascinating electronic sounds. The recording as a whole must have been a tremendous labour of love. My only complaint is the lack of texts in the liner notes.


This is a rather special addition to Brian Ferneyhough’s discography. It’s not quite a complete survey of his choral music (Transit and the third Time & Motion Study would fill another disc), bit it illuminates a facet of his output that is perhaps not as widely recognised as it might be. As the composer says, he became familiar early on with the works of Dunstable and Tallis, and their abstract approach to text setting (coupled with a searing expressive musical imagery in the case of Tallis) is only one of the ways in which their influence may be felt. The earliest choral work in his catalogue is no longer the Missa Brevis (completed in 1970) but a brace of Marian motets written in 1966, one of which he reworked in 2002 (by which token it is also the latest). These relate audibly to the Mass, which is however more angular and forceful in its expression. The Agnus Dei, on the other hand, follows convention in providing moments of repose.

The two other works constitute scenes from the opera Shadowtime. In “The Doctrine of Similarity” the choir is joined by a small instrumental ensemble (drawn from Lontano’s membership), and in “Stelae for Failed Time” by an electroacoustic set-up through which the composer’s own voice gradually emerges.

The interpretative standard of these performances is uniformly high, as is the quality and presence of the sound recording; but in “Stelae” the results are exceptional: the individual voices are more distinctly audible and their interventions are still more characterful in shape and in weight. The blending of voices and electronic media is also finely judged. There are perceptive notes, some by the composer himself,. Sadly, though, none of the texts are included.


The increase in Brian Ferneyhough recordings since his sixtieth birthday no doubt reflects growing realization of his significance as a composer in general and, in particular, that the technical complexity of his music does not preclude a corresponding expressive vision or a deep-lying emotional intensity. Choral music per se has not featured prominently in his output, but, in that the works in question are from either end of his career, this disc offers an overview of unexpected inclusiveness.

As John Hails points out in his thought-provoking note, the writing of sacred choral music to Latin texts invited shunning from the cultural and religious establishments of the 1960s. Yet the Two Marian Motets (1966, though the first was incomplete until 2002) evince a synthesis of the English Renaissance and European pot-war choral traditions provisional only in the light of Ferneyhough’s later development. The Missa Brevis (1969) finds this development at a crucial juncture, with the ‘Kyrie’ pursuing an atomisation of its text that the ‘Gloria’, with its confrontation of sung and spoken layers, brings to a head. The latter sections feel detached by comparison, Ferneyhough having broken through to a more personal treatment of words where the collision between complexity and indeterminacy creates its own freedom.

The remaining works are part of Shadowtime – the opera ‘around and about’ the philosopher Walter Benjamin on which Ferneyhough worked for much of the last decade, and whose seven scenes trace a path towards ever more intense abstraction. ‘The Doctrine of Familiarity’ (the third scene) comprises 13 canons, variously scored for voices and instruments, that offer an oblique but potent overview of Benjamin’s precepts in the light of his tragic fate; and with texts by Charles Bernstein, whose acerbic but never soulless intellectualism offers the perfect complement. ‘Stelae for Failed Time’ (the final scene) unfolds as a continuous entity where the aural image of Benjamin is gradually dispersed with only the pre-recorded voice of the composer remaining to close the work in resigned incomprehension.

All the performances are as authoritative as one would expect from the BBC Singers (ably accompanied by Lontano in the Shadowtime scenes) with a spacious immediacy ideal in the unaccompanied works. The complete Shadowtime is essential for appreciating the present scenes in their rightful context, but these have an extra immediacy that makes them ideal as an entrée into that work.

Presentation (the booklet also features an insightful article by the composer) is up to Metier’s high standards. Now, which company will grasp the challenge of giving us a disc of Ferneyhough’s three major orchestral works?


Coventry-born Ferneyhough, 65 next year, is better known abroad than in Britain. After lessons with Lennox Berkeley, he lived in Switzerland, Germany and Holland before joining the University of California, San Diego in 1987. His recent opera Shadowtime, inspired by the last hours of German thinker Walter Benjamin, provides a large part of the fascinating music on this CD. The Doctrine of Similarity, for choir and chamber ensemble, is made up of 13 complex canons, using mainly traditional vocal techniques. Stelae for Failed Time (Solo for Melancholia as the Angel of History) forms the closing scene of the opera. Here the 12-part chorus is accompanied by pre-recorded sounds, including the composer’s own voice. Twelve solo singers also figure in his wonderful early Missa Brevis, an experimental setting well beyond the liturgical norm. Two Marian Motets span the years 1966-2002. Directed by Odaline de la Martinez, this music is a must for anyone enjoying the contemporary scene.


As a contemporary choral composer, Brian Ferneyhough wouldn't immediately come to mind. But the four works here are all authentic pieces for choir, though they all need a hugely proficient one like the BBC Singers, and span his entire creative career. Anyone who has heard Ferneyhough's "opera" Shadowtime, centred upon the life of the philosopher Walter Benjamin, will know the more recent pair of works here, for the 13 miniatures, all canons of one kind or other, that make up The Doctrine of Similarity, and Stele for Failed Time, for 12 voices and computer, are the third, seventh and last parts respectively of the stage work. But the 1969 Missa Brevis and the Two Marian Motets begun three years earlier are new to disc. The mass is particularly welcome, for it's one of the most important of Ferneyhough's early works, composed at the time he was moving from Britain, where he had been studying with Lennox Berkeley, to Amsterdam, where the musical culture was much more forward-looking. Powerfully wrought and fiercely concentrated, it shows how far stylistically Ferneyhough had developed and set the agenda for the extraordinary series of pieces that followed in the next decade.


Ferneyhough’s Missa Brevis for 12 solo singers (1969) stood out among his early works for a dramatic directness that is in part due to his deliberate use of a familiar text. The Latin words provide an armature for a sonic, textural fantasy that might easily run wild. In brilliant contrast is the volatile instrumental writing that accompanies the chorus in The Doctrine of Similarity, 13 “canons” that form the third scene of his recherché Walter Benjamin opera, Shadowtime. Also included on this impressive disc are Two Marian Motets, a cappella settings from, respectively, 1966 and 2002; and the opera’s bold electroacoustic finale, Stelae for Failed Time.


Brian Ferneyhough is not the first composer to base a stage-work on the life, mind and Freitod of Walter Benjamin, who perished while attempting to flee the Nazis. But caring performances of two choral works on an enterprising Metier CD greatly whet the appetite for Ferneyhough's music-theatre piece Shadowtime. Forming the third scene of Shadowtime, 'The Doctrine of Similarity' (1999-2001) presents thirteen canonic movements for choir and a small instrumental ensemble.

In the form of the canon, Ferneyhough notes, time is 'folded and unfolded, origami-like, against itself' – in decided contrast to B.A. Zimmermann's circular conception of time. Ferneyhough's method also differs from Zimmermann in avoiding musical quotes. The sole exception occurs in Motetus absconditus (No. 4), which compresses an isorhythmic motet from the Montpelier Codex, 'rather like a wrecked automobile that has been passed through the crusher'. In its James Joyce-like literary recyclings, Charles Bernstein's libretto reflects an analogous process. The third motet, Cannot Cross, employs the broadest range of vocal techniques. This is one of several a cappella movements, the accompanied pieces featuring combinations of three clarinets, piano (Dominic Saunders), percussion (Julian Warburton) and solo violin (Caroline Balding). No. 5, Amphibolies II, is purely instrumental, just as a guitar concerto takes up one whole scene in Shadowtime.

The disc's other extract from Shadowtime shows a characteristic virtuosity of texture and timbre. Stelae for Failed Time (Solo for Melancholiaas the Angel of History) is for twelve voices and pre-recorded sound, including the composer as reciter. Here the perspective becomes wholly internal. Two parallel texts are sung simultaneously, interrupted by Joycean revisitings of lines from the first scene of Shadowtime. Taking advantage of an IRCAM commission, Ferneyhough collaborated with Gilbert Nouno on the synthesised materials. The initial electronic passages recall Walter Benjamin's passion for wind-up toys.

The remaining pieces on this disc date from the latter half of the 1960s. Of Two Marian Motets for two solo sopranos and choir, the first (Ave mater gloriosasalvatoris) was unfinished until Ferneyhough responded to a request from the Jeunes Solistes in 2002. In both motets he now perceives the influence of Dunstable – in the harmony – and Thomas Tallis. The virtuosic-experimental character of the Missa Brevis of 1969 effectively excludes it from liturgical performance. The Mass is for twelve solo singers divided into three groups, and it begins in a haze of syllabic fragments. Later, the words are sung, spoken and whispered. In the final movement, one group sings the text while the other voices explore other rhythms. As delivered by members of the BBC Singers, this is still a fascinating piece to listen to.