Psappha Ensemble  -Halle St. Peters, Manchester

Writers: René Char adapted by Pierre Boulez, Toru Takemitsu, Tom Harrold and Luciano Berio

Conductor: Jamie Phillips

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

Psappha Ensemble is The North’s only stand-alone contemporary classical music ensemble. They are based at the highly atmospheric venue Halle St. Peters- a former Italian Chapel in inner-city Manchester. Inside the venue the mood is intimate and informal – the musicians acting as their own roadies and setting up their equipment and the audience coming close to encroaching on the performance area as they take their seats.

There are four pieces in tonight’s show but the full ensemble only works on two of them. The other pieces involve duos of viola and percussion and flute and guitar. In most shows this type of approach would develop into a duel but tonight it is clear that one instrument in the pair (the viola and the flute) dominate.

As the title suggests Luciano Berio’s Naturale contrasts the natural and the artificial although not in the manner one might expect. The viola sets a droning background akin to bagpipes while recordings of a genuine Sicilian folk singer play in the background. It is hard to determine if the live music is complementing or challenging the raw authentic vocals of the singer.

In an evening of challenging music Toru Takemitsu’s three-part Towards the Sea is the most accessible. It is easy to trace the ebb and flow of water in the fluid sound of the flute and the dripping of raindrops in the plucking of guitar strings.

The full ensemble takes part in the World Premiere of Tom Harrold’s Dark Dance. It is an adversarial piece of work and brings to mind the way Jazz musicians constantly challenge each other.  The viola sets a low constant tone while the other instruments surge forward in fits and starts as if trying to push into the main theme. It is a daring piece of work especially the decision to end on an anti-climax with a hushed shuffle of percussion.

Dark Dance was commissioned to complement the main piece of the evening: Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master). Based on writings by René Char the work is considered a classic of the twentieth century and was well ahead of its time in reflecting the influences of music from Asia and Africa. It may be iconic but that does not make it an easy listen. Le Marteau sans maître is lively and fast-moving but hardly restful. The piece proceeds in fits and starts making for a spiky stop/start atmosphere that leaves the audience edgy and restless. Just as you think you’ve identified a theme the score shifts yet again. One has to admire the discipline of the ensemble whose members are often limited to playing no more than a handful of notes before the music changes. It is a chaotic and demanding piece that displays in full the talents of the Psappha Ensemble.

Reviewed 22 March 2018


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