Paul Pellay was born in Imperia in Italy in 1965, moving to England when he was thirteen. He studied piano with Ronald Smith and composition with Paul Patterson, later studying in America with John Bauer, Donald Freund and Kamran Ince.
He was approached by his old friend, violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved for a ‘brief solo piece’ on an astronomical theme, which turned out to be Riding the Comet’s Tail. Like Topsy, however, the thing grew and grew and between 2002 and 2004 Pellay had completed the seven books that comprise the drolly—if forbiddingly—titled Thesaurus of Violinistic Fiendishness .
Now, a decade after it was finished, here it is, performed by Peter Sheppard Skærved himself. These solo violin pieces, of which there are fifty-five in total, are compact. The shortest lasts thirty seconds or so, the longest nearly six minutes. On average they clock in at around two minutes. They bristle with harmonic and digital demands. Sometimes Pellay asks the soloist to stamp or keep rhythm to his pieces—the first number from Book VII, a devilish march is one example, and the last of Book II where the foot-stamps work like hammer-blows, evoking a grisly scene from Goya, is another.
In terms of colour and texture these works are post-Ysaÿe in intensity, texture and demands, but in their compression, and their relative brevity, the obvious analogue is Bartók. They do not mine folkloric sources especially, but in a compiling a series of books obsessively focusing on one instrument and one object, Pellay seems to be using Bartók at least as a kind of blueprint for what is possible, and tolerable, in this kind of work.
Each book explores a theme, geographical, literary, pictorial-visual which is where Goya comes in, as Book II is devoted to him. There are some political sideswipes at the Bush administration in the opening book. Republicans will not be amused. It’s certainly helpful to read the composer’s notes, because the music is so focused, so filigree in places, or obsessive in others, that direction is needed. Some of the bowing and articulation is deliberately vicious, but violence is often balanced by reflection, the sulphurous by the sanguine, and fragile pizzicati by detonatory ones. When he does base a piece on a folk song, which he does when ending Book III the results are rather lovely. Elsewhere the playing is best seen as abstract.
These are not studies, I suggest, but brief character pieces, utilising the vast potential of the violin to mine the instrument’s technical and expressive resources, both beautiful and ugly, the better to depict or project ideas, pictures, and thoughts. It is, to put the matter frankly, wholly exhausting to listen to them straight through. I’ve done so and you don’t want to, I promise you. The micro-obsessional pieces, not least in Book VII require and deserve more selective listening, a book at a time, as I’m sure the composer intends. Even so, this is music that requires stamina and concentration. As Jascha Heifetz suggested about listening to music on disc, try to listen to these Books one at a time, in the dark. Distraction is fatal to the narrative of the music, unless it’s something like fiddle devilry of Cosmic Buckaroo (Book VII) or The Warmonger’s Hoe-Down from Book I.
Finally, all praise to the recording engineers, and above all to the intrepid Sheppard Skærved who plays like a man possessed. Maybe he is.