Alan Cooper reviews soundfestival 2017: Red Note Ensemble & Pascal Gallois

KATE MOLLESON: Interviewer for BBC Radio 3

Thursday 9th November, 2017

Thursday’s concert in the unusual venue of The Anatomy Rooms which turned out to work rather well in letting us see the details of what was going on, was one of the most challenging and exciting events for SOUND this year. The programme consisted of three works, two by French composers and the third by the English composer Benedict Mason who was present to hear his new piece for bassoon and instrumental ensemble. The French virtuoso bassoonist Pascal Gallois was supported by the Red Note Ensemble making a welcome return to Aberdeen for sound.

The first work in the programme was Talea (1986) by Gérard Grisey (1946 – 1998). He studied with Messiaen and Dutilleux and later on with Ligeti, Stockhausen and Xenakis in Darmstadt. This would suggest certain affinities with Boulez. Grisey himself would claim to be very different and indeed his music is very personal. Nevertheless, certain aspects of Talea did recall a work such as Le Marteau sans Maître, in particular where bars of silence were given special significance often broken by moments of sudden ferocity, especially from the piano. In this music, timbre and sound quality mattered as much as anything else. Along with the piano which played a crucial and dramatic part there were two stringed instruments, violin and cello who exploited so many sound possibilities from glossy tones or skeletal sounds or very edgy timbres. The two other instruments were flute and clarinet but actually far more than just that. The players employed several clarinets including the plummy tones of bass clarinet and at least four different flutes including piccolo and bass flute.

The performance was marked by a magnificent level of precision. As the composer once said, the acoustical life of sounds was paramount and the work was abundant in varied instrumental colour. As much as anything else, this performance was as exciting to watch as to hear.

The performance was being recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on the evening of the 23rd of December. Kate Molleson interviewed the bassoon virtuoso Pascal Gallois who made it easy for her by expounding at length on her questions and giving examples of the special techniques that exploit overtones as well as the main tone we heard. The result meant that the bassoon could play at two different pitches at the same time. As Shakespeare wrote in O Mistress mine, “O stay and hear; your true love’s coming, That can sing both high and low”. Gallois however could do both at the same time. How amazing is that? Gallois described the bassoon as a schizophrenic instrument often playing lower tones in the orchestra or as at the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring sounding much higher.

The first work that Gallois played along with members of the Red Note Ensemble (piano with violin, viola, cello and double bass as well as clarinet and trombone) was Huit Pièces pour Basson et Ensemble (2009) by the French composer Philippe Hersant (b. 1948). This was a deliciously attention grabbing work which rejoiced in a fabulous performance. In every one of the eight pieces, the great variety of bassoon sounds were reflected in the most intriguing ways with the other instruments in the ensemble whether singly or together.

There were some amazing sounds from the bassoon, sometimes two lines at the same time, sometimes fluttering which gave the bassoon a percussive power. At one point,  Gallois made the instrument even more percussive by removing his reed altogether. What a wonderfully colourful and engaging performance!

The final piece in the programme was the uniquely titled work by the English composer Benedict Mason (b. 1954), Some Eight Real-time Rippadeeities to Water the Bonny Links. It was receiving its World Premiere. It was commissioned by sound and Red Note Ensemble among others. Based on many Scottish reels, the music had its own unique character featuring marvellous interactions between the bassoonist and members of the Red Note Ensemble including this time violin, viola, cello and bass along with piccolo and French horn. The opening movement suggested raindrops as different instruments dripped out individual notes. There was a fabulous use of instrumental colour not just from the bassoon but from every member of the ensemble and I sensed a wonderful sense of good humour in this totally fascinating work. I look forward to hearing it again on the 23 rd December!

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