If he has never hit the headlines – insofar as contemporary music in the UK can ever be expected to do so – Ed (formally Edward Dudley) Hughes has been a diverting presence since the BBC broadcast of his orchestral piece Crimson Flames marked him out as a name to watch some two decades ago. Since then he has assembled a sizeable as well as diverse body of work across the broad range of genres, one which reveals a notable awareness of the evolution of Western music not just over the last century but also over what might be termed the ‘humanist’ tradition stretching back to the Renaissance. Although his music is not new to disc, the present release features a much greater range than has hitherto been available.
The first disc focuses on chamber and ensemble pieces as performed by the New Music Players, which Hughes founded (as the Cambridge NMP) in 1990. A judicious miscellany begins with the tensile compression of the Quartet (1997) and its intensive interplay of four highly distinct ideas, then to the Chamber Concerto (2010) whose four movements outline a nominally classical trajectory that is continually undercut by the deft superimposition of oblique harmonies and textures. Dark Formations (2010) introduces a major facet of Hughes’s composing in recent years: music written to be juxtaposed with a visual component, in this case photographs taken of Allied bombing raids in the summer of 1943, which doubtless determined its ominous and often menacing demeanour. Two other pieces emerged in relation to famous films from the silent era: Stike! (2006) is the study for a full-length score to Sergey Eisenstein’s 1925 agitprop and also a breviary of its febrile content, while Light Cuts Through Dark Skies (2001) accompanies Joris Iven’s 1929 naturalistic fantasy over six sections which unfold as a constantly changing interplay of duos and trios whose underlying tenor offers a productive contrast with Eisler’s more literal score. Placed between these, the Sextet (1999) is an inherently abstract statement, yet its three movements take in allusions to other music over their unpredictable and eventful course.
The second disc features notable cycles for solo piano and unaccompanied voices respectively. Evolving between 1990 and 2002, Orchids constitutes a sequence that, while written individually and with six different pianists in mind, affords a convincing overview of Hughes’s development – moving from contrapuntal lucidity, through harmonic astringency and lyrical polyphony, then inward speculation and combative energy, to quixotic evocation. This latter’s allusions to most of the earlier pieces underlines the cogency of the collection as a whole. Heard in these terms there have been few, if any, recent British piano works to compare with this in expressive scope, which is hardly less true in vocal terms of A Buried Flame (2010). This four-part sequence juxtaposes Psalm 69 with poems by former and ongoing detainees at Guantanamo Bay in powerful yet never histrionic investigation of physical incarceration and spiritual alienation. It is a measure, too, of Hughes’s sensitivity that the texts never draw attention to themselves outside of their musical context.
Throughout both of these discs, performances are as committed and attentive to the music’s frequently understated demands as might be expected from ensembles of the calibre of the New Music Players and New Music Vocal Ensemble. Special mention must be made of Richard Casey, who, besides writing most of the detailed and informative booklet notes, proves no less adept and sympathetic as a pianist. The recordings, though made over more than a decade, fully convey this music’s clarity and intricacy, making for a release that can be warmly recommended for its persuasive overview of a composer for whom a wider reputation ought not be long in coming.