Huddersfield contemporary music festival – beauty and freshness and striking new sounds

Andrew Clements
·3-min read

There was no need for a November pilgrimage to Britain’s leading new-music event this year. Instead Huddersfield contemporary music festival came to us, concentrated into a hectic weekend of events, some of which were broadcast live on Radio 3 from the BBC’s Maida Vale studios and the Royal Festival Hall, while others were streamed on the festival’s website.

Despite the enforced changes, though, the reshaped concerts still managed to include at least some of the works and performers that had been planned for this year’s festival. There was the healthy mix of music from well-known and less familiar composers that has come to characterise the Huddersfield festival, ending with two premieres from James Dillon, a composer who has been closely associated with it for more than 40 years.

HCMF’s connections with Dillon go back to its beginning, when he won a prize for young composers at the first festival in 1978. His music has appeared there regularly ever since, most recently with the UK premiere of Tanz/haus: triptych, in 2017. Dillon turned 70 last month, and Huddersfield marked this with the first performance of his Pharmakeia, commissioned by Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris and by the London Sinfonietta, who introduced it here, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson.

The title of the four-part cycle comes from the Greek word for medicine or sorcery; Dillon describes the form of Pharmakeia as “an interlocking ritual, the ritual of music itself”. There are motifs that seem to bind the four movements together – the opening brass invocation seems to recur in varied guises, as the music swings between tangled, densely worked passages – the kind of writing that once led Dillon to be linked, inaccurately, with the “new complexity” school of contemporary music – and much simpler, more directly expressive, even tonal reminiscences. Even when the connections between the musical ideas seem hard to follow, their sheer beauty and freshness are totally compelling.

Also new was the solo-piano Echo the Angelus, written four years ago for Noriko Kawai, who had recorded it for this concert. Dillon has dedicated the three-part, 20-minute piece to the memories of the poet Paul Celan and the pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. The clarity of his piano writing, and Kawai’s crisp realisation of it, evoke memories of Michelangeli’s playing of Debussy and Ravel especially, while the irregular silences, quietly decaying resonances and tolling bells hint at a private, elegiac dimension.

On the previous two evenings, concerts by Explore Ensemble, the clarinettist Heather Roche and the GBSR Duo – percussionist George Barton and pianist Siwan Rhys – brought a whole clutch of premieres. Explore introduced Oliver Leith’s charmingly discursive Me Hollywood, with its wonderful stylistic promiscuity, and also included Lawrence Dunn’s delicate, microtonal processional Sentimental, Drifting Music. Roche’s multiphonic virtuosity was applied to Lisa Robertson’s Heartwood and Martin Iddon’s Sapindales, while Barton and Rhys took on the formidable technical challenges of Arne Gieshoff’s Spillikins, elusive and quicksilver to start, becoming sparser and becalmed as it went on.

Streamed throughout the weekend, too, were the latest half dozen of Riot Ensemble’s Zeitgeist commissions, solo pieces for members of the group, composed and recorded during lockdown. The most striking were Matthew Grouse’s Left Right, Left Right, performed by percussionist Sam Wilson with as much speech as snare-drum playing, and Heloise Tunstall-Behrens’s Picea 433, a homage to the spruce trees that provide the wood for piano soundboards, and played by Adam Swayne.

• The concerts by Explore Ensemble, GBSR Duo and Noriko Kawai and the London Sinfonietta are available on BBC Sounds.