There was a strong focus on Danish composers at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival; works by the young and audacious Simon Steen-Andersen featured in several concerts, whilst the Arditti Quartet’s performance of Hans Abrahamsen’s Fourth Quartet proved to be the highlight of the opening weekend. It was Abrahamsen’s teacher Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, however, who was the focus of this concert, which brought together the London Sinfonietta with the Copenhagen-based vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices for a celebration of his 80th birthday.
Along with Per Nørgård, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was central to the development of the “New Simplicity” movement. A true maverick who once described one of his own works, Trafik, as “a rough, monotonous, unruly, unappetizing soundpulp” Gudmundsen-Holmgreen seems to have little time for pretence. The one-word titles of the works on offer here, all being given their UK premières, needed little or no explanation. Run, the energetic instrumental number which opened proceedings, utilised a “bottom-heavy” wind section to wonderful effect – John Orford’s raucous contrabassoon playing being a real highlight.
The several unaccompanied vocal works on the programme also revealed a rich and eclectic mix of influences. Mongolian overtone singing (à la Stockhausen’s Stimmung) was much in evidence whilst Sound I and II used gritty quarter-tones to tremendous effect. Elsewhere Beckett’s fractured monologues seemed a clear influence.
Whilst he approached the instrumental numbers with real vigour, here it felt like conductor James Weeks, standing in at short notice for an indisposed Paul Hillier, was rather taking a back-seat in proceedings, perhaps wise when one considers Theatre of Voices’ intimate understanding of this composer’s idiosyncratic language. Indeed, many of the works in the programme were dedicated to them.
Turn II was a dreamy vocalise for the quartet of vocal soloists, the limpid soprano of Else Torp perfectly matching the work’s character. The singers were accompanied by the striking combination of harp, scordatura guitar, percussion and bass flute, the latter played by Ileana Ruhemann, who dispatched the many extended techniques required (slap tongue, key-slaps, etc.) with real gusto. There was a sense of fragility in the piece, too, beautifully captured by an unexpected final quivering gesture.
The sheer playful ingenuity of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was most evident in the concert’s final work, entitled Company, in which two works from the first half of the concert were superimposed on top of one another to great effect (a trick he previously employed in his 1985 percussion concerto Triptykon). The frenetically energetic Play brought an increased sense of drive and direction to Song, a four-part motet based on John Dowland’s well-known ayre “Flow my tears”. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s inventive manipulation of the text here deserves special mention; at first the singers spat out isolated consonants and groaning noises which only later began to coalesce, rather movingly, into the words of the poem.
This was a fascinating exploration of a unique and compelling musical voice, the honesty and directness of expression displayed in these quirky works proving a refreshing antidote to a mixed week of new music in which such qualities were sometimes severely lacking. Hopefully the success of this project will encourage the Sinfonietta to bring the music of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen to London, where it will be easier for it to gain the recognition it deserves.