Luke Bedford: In the Voices of the Living

Four orchestras, four pieces: this is a wonderful collection of works by Luke Bedford

Luke Bedford: In the Voices of the Living

Four orchestras, four pieces: this is a wonderful collection of works by Luke Bedford. Nominated for an Ivor Award this year for his Staggered Nocturne (see my post), Bedford (born 1978) has been on the British modern music scene for some time: I remember reviewing a Portrait Concert at London's Southbank Centre for the journal Tempo as well as reviewing a Col Legno disc of his music that included the fabulous Wonderful Two-Headed Nightingale (2011; the concert included the UK premiere of his complementary Wonderful No-Headed Nightingale and the World Premiere of Renewal).

Bedford's music is uncompromising, and satisfyingly so: he is a pupil of the French Spectralist composer Gérard Grisey His opera, Through His Teeth, revealed a major talent for writing for the stage (see my review of the World Premiere at Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre in 2014) The 22-minute Instability (2014/15) receives an incendiary performance by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. The title is salient: instability, and its relationship to planes of stasis, has formed the bedrock of much of Bedford's music. This piece was written for the 2015 Proms, and I reviewed its premiere here: it was a strange concert, sandwiching Bedford between Schubert (Symphony 4) and Bruckner's Mass No. 3, and not without its own comedy of errors. But it was the Bedford that stood out.

This is, indeed, that performance (the booklet tells us it was the "broacast" (sic) of that date, August 1 2015. Good, then, that the Royal Albert Hall organ is captured in this recording (the piece was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic and therefore written for that occasion and space). I spoke in my review of feeling the RAH organ rather than hearing it, something which obviously comes across less well on disc. I do stick by what I said about the piece as being “unpredictable but never meandering”. This is a voyage defined by its volatility: it was originally intended as being in five movements, but a frenetic two days' reshuffling morphed this into the present, far less overtly organised cloud of sound. And yet, there is no doubting the consistency of harmonic palette, meeting an aural imagination that has few peers. This is a magnificent piece, and the ability to hear ts wonders repeatedly is a real boon:

Luke Bedford: Instability

Another BBC orchestra next, the BBC Symphony under the much-loved and much-missed Oliver Knussen for Outblaze the Sky (2006), Much shorter (just under seven minutes), this 2006 piece was written for the LSO and inspires by D. M. Thomas' 1981 novel The White Hotel (to be exact, the poem “Don Giovanni” which appears in the final chapter). Bedford's music reflects the dream-like aspect of this poetic reverie. The piece is essentially pulse-less: instead, timbres slide in and out of each other. The sheer intensity of Bedford's writing is supremely conveyed in Knussen’s performance. Oliver Knussen's understanding of his fellow composers' works is the stuff of legend in the music industry, and it shines through here, posthumously.This is, again, from a Prom, this time Prom 15 of the 2010 season (July 28). Not the World Premiere this time, but a Proms premiere, sharing space with Stockhausen (Jubiläum, another Proms premiere), Birtwistle's Sonance Severance, Colin Matthews' Violin Concerto (London premiere, with Leila Josefowicz), Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Rheinsiche Kirmestänze, and finally Schumann's “Rhenish” Symphony.

Luke Bedford: Outblaze the Sky

Tenor Mark Padmore remains one of the great voices of our time. Fabulous to see him as soloist in Bedford’s In the Voices of the Living (2017-19). His plangent, plaintive voice is perfect for this fascinating work. Bedford sets Americal literary historian Stephen Greenblatt, who in his Shakesperean Negotiations speaks of a “desire to speak with the dead’. This I yet another side to Bedford. The music is lyrical, almost post-Brittenish, but scoring is often kept to an absolute minimum (try “Transmittunt,” the second movement, with its predominantly voice and harp texture).

Mark Padmore at King's Place, photo © Monika Jabulkowska

The single line Bedford sets from Joyce's Ulysses in the third movement, “Hold,” is remarkable: “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past”. Repetitions of “Hold” over repeated ensemble chords that seem to invoke a processional, seem to represent the trudge of time. Anchor yourself to the present, Joyce entreats, appreciating it is the nexus of past and future. Pamore's delivery is perfect, the whole a slow crescendo of energy to “plunges to the past”. Bedford achieves maximum expressivity from minimal means, something especially clear in the fourth movement, a setting of Leonardi (from Ad Angelo Mei). And this move,ent is just as much about the crystalline instrumental scoring as it is of Padmoe's anguished outbursts. The final song, “After The,” is a setting of lines by Shakespeare that being exactly thus (“After the storm, after the moon, after the night's shade and so on). The piece is remarkable; as is this performance, recorded at King's Place in June 2021. The London Sinfonietta is conducted by Geoffrey Paterson:

Before: In the Voices of the Living

Finally, the Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra (2016-17); the Arcis Saxophone Quartet joins the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Robin Ticciati, a performance recorded by DeutschlandRadio at Berlin's Philharmonie. Bedford's take on a saxophone concerto is characteristically different and reflective; it poses questions about the relationship between solo group and tutti. The music again seems to hover on the edge of appearance (or disappearance), with odd movements more volatile. Its almost like hearing a sound sculpture, this piece, and all the more fascinating for it. Here's the first and second movements:

Here's the Soundcloud link: