by Paul Hillier
To reduce a group of works from a variety of different scorings to fit just three specific instrumentalists is a most unusual process: especially in contemporary music, where normally the composer’s original scoring is assumed to be sacrosanct. In these cases, however, the composers have all acquiesced in their treatment, and no wonder! The resulting music reveals the form and richness of each composer’s imagination in a way that is both startling and joyful. It is like comparing a winter woodland to its appearance six months earlier. Gone is the profusion of colour and sensuous abundance, but instead underlying shapes emerge that were concealed before, and a more muted range of colours displays itself, each one intimately compelling in its singularity. Eventually a new sense of richness is created as the mind and the eye – and the ear – adjust themselves to the world about them. What seems at first glance to be only grey and brown begins to show elements of red, and yellow, and blue, and even green.
What further distinguishes this recording is the fact that the performers have had a hand in creating the music, as well as re-creating it. This aspect of music-making plays all too little role in contemporary ‘art’ music, apart from those instances where musicians are asked to improvise – and thus to use a skill that may virtually have atrophied from want of exercise. But improvisation is only one aspect of creative performance, and Alpha’s close encounter with the musical essences of these works seems to have given the trio a precious sense of ownership of the music, even while the works mysteriously and naturally retain their identity with the composers who made them. This idea of music as something ‘open’ – in this case, specific notes and yet open to different instrumentation and therefore different modes of articulation (which in turn open up a cornucopia of possibilities) – is something rare and valuable.
And finally the music: it doesn’t sound to me like new music with that slightly forbidding aura of something that may be good for you, but doesn’t frankly quite grab your attention as you secretly want it to. This music does grab and hold onto you. One must therefore give honour where it’s due: to the composers of course. But I think it also has something to do with the way the performers too have re-imagined it, and in the process invented a new level of meaning for the verb ‘perform’.
Paul Hillier is widely known as a conductor, singer, author, and founder of Hilliard Ensemble and Theatre of Voices. He is a specialist on Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich, choir music and early music and the recipient of innumerable prizes for his work around music.