I began my review of this CD with the piano solo Gleann Dá Loch. The title is translated ‘glen of two lochs.’ This work was originally composed in 1995 and revised the following year and was inspired by the ‘landscape of the upper lake at Glendalough located in County Wicklow.’ It is the site of an old monastic settlement. Rhona Clarke has found the musical dichotomy in the landscape itself. There are steep mountains either side of a glistening lake (or lough). It is this that has infused the music. The composer uses a complex pianistic language that involves chords played at extreme ends of the piano, rapid scalar passages and massive contrast in dynamics. It is a hugely pleasing piece of piano music that certainly achieves its aim of providing a musical impression of this fascinating landscape.
The main event on this CD are three of Rhona Clarke’s Piano Trios. In February 2016, I reviewed the Trio No.2, which was featured on Dancing in Daylight: Contemporary Piano Trios from Ireland (MÉTIER MSV28556). I considered that this was ‘a satisfying composition that balances romance, motor rhythms and neo-classicism.’ The Trio No.2 was composed in 2001 and was revised in 2015. It is written in two short movements. The first opens with gently stated piano chords, supporting a ‘romantic’ dialogue between the cello and violin. The mood could hardly be different in the second movement. Here the inspiration is Bartók. It is good to come across a modern piece of music that uses fugal constructions as the basis of its musical argument. There is some respite from this fast-moving music with nods back to the sustained opening movement.
The Piano Trio No.3 was written in in 2002 and revised in 2015. It was commissioned as part of the 80th birthday celebrations of the composer James Wilson (1922-2005). I just loved the smooth, jazzy opening of this work. This is signed ‘tenderly’. The temper of the music does change as the movement progresses, with a little more urgency, however the relaxed mood is largely maintained. Once again, Rhona Clarke has created a considerable contrast with the second movement, which is played ‘expectantly.’ This is a million miles away from the ‘smooth’ opening of the work. In fact, Bartókian motor rhythms seem to prevail: or is it the ticking of clock? This is jittery music that becomes distorted and seems to break down. Altogether a splendid piece that balances contrast with a surprising degree of unity, bearing in the mind the disparity of the musical material in each movement.
I always get a wee bit edgy when a composer introduces a tape into their work: I should not have worried. Con Coro, which implies that the work is recorded with a choir or vocal ensemble, is in this case coupled with violin and cello. Clarke has created the ‘vocal’ tape by recording her own voice singing extracts from the plainchant ‘Ubi Caritas’. (Where there is charity…). Where I lose the plot with this piece is the suggestion in the liner notes that it should be played to a blindfolded audience: this allows the individual to concentrate on the music, apparently. It does seem a little ‘long-haired’, as my late father would have said. Surely this dictum would apply to every piece of music ever composed. Yes, I do close my eyes sometimes at a concert, but I also like to watch the performance. Let the listener choose. Apart from this conceit, I thoroughly enjoyed this imaginative and often gorgeous piece of music.
The Piano Trio No.4 ‘A Different Game’ is a ‘different’ can of beans altogether. The most recent of her trios, this makes use of improvisation placed into a ‘sequencing programme’ (I guess this implies a computer programme) that generates much of the material for the Trio. The liner notes do not say who did the improvisations in the first place. Clarke sees this as a kind of pre-compositional game. The opening movement had its genesis in a work titled Forethought which was used as a ‘sound installation’ at an art exhibition. This has been transformed into an exciting, jagged sound, which is balanced by minimalistic music with echoes of jazz. I like the idea of the second movement: Clarke states that is it ‘based on the disintegration of a waltz.’ It is exactly what she delivers. The listener music must not expect Palm Court music: it is not Max Jaffa on an ‘off’ day. All this agitation is put on one side in the serene and beautiful ‘slow’ movement. The finale is quite simply bizarre – in a wonderful way. It is a ‘crazed dance’ that makes use of cluster chords, heavy textures and trills. There is even a cuckoo call embedded in here. But this is no First Cuckoo of Spring: Stravinsky’s Rite has nothing on this dance. It is manic. The Piano Trio No.4 was written for the present ensemble.
The final track is the melancholy ‘In Umbra’ for solo cello. Rhona Clarke has deliberately placed this haunting work last in the track-listings, forming ‘a kind of contemplative epilogue.’ It is a lovely piece, which is always lyrical. It allows considerable interpretive freedom to the cellist. The title can be translated ‘In the Shadow.’
A detailed biography of Rhona Clarke can be found on her website; however, a couple of pointers may be of interest. Rhona Clarke is a Dublin born composer (1958). After study at University College, Dublin she completed her Ph. D at Queen’s University, Belfast. As well as being a composer, Clarke lectures in music at St Patrick College, Dublin City University. She has written in a wide variety of genres, including chamber, orchestral, instrumental and choral. Clarke has successfully made use of electronic music in several her scores.
The liner notes include an appreciation of the composer and her music written by Axel Klein. Rhona Clarke has provided the programme notes for each piece. A short bio is also included as well as information about the Fidelio Trio. The Fidelio Trio was formed during 1995 and is made up of London-based Irish musicians. They play a wide range of music from the ‘classics’ to newly-commissioned works. Their current CD catalogue features music by Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Michael Nyman and Judith Weir. The trio’s playing on this new CD of music by Rhona Clarke is outstanding. Not only are they a hugely proficient ensemble, but are willing to perform solo pieces with equal proficiency.
This CD explores six imaginative works. Each one is approachable, despite the composer making no concessions to the current craze for insipid minimalism (sub-Einaudi), so often in evidence in contemporary music. She has managed to create an exciting and often challenging personal voice that is always interesting and often quite beautiful. Although Clarke does not explicitly use Irish folk tunes in these works, the numinous atmosphere of the Irish landscape, music and people are never too far away.