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Brian Elias (b1948)

Music for strings

Download only Available Friday 20 September 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: October 2021
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Simon Kiln
Engineered by Simon Kiln
Release date: 20 September 2024
Total duration: 68 minutes 52 seconds

Cover artwork: Untitled (detail, 2018) by Anish Kapoor
All rights reserved 2024
Spanning almost half a century, this survey of Brian Elias’s chamber music for strings arose from a retrospective staged in 2020 by the Music@Malling festival in Kent. At the time, the composer reflected: ‘Although my music and its style has developed over the years, many features of my work and my own values have remained remarkably constant.’

Among those features, and values, we might number the painstaking craftsmanship that is demanded by a discerning ear and a restlessly inquisitive mind. Elias has produced scarcely more than a piece per year since La chevelure from 1967, a setting of Baudelaire which he regards as an Opus 1. The strongest influence on his musical formation at the time came from the composer Elisabeth Lutyens, who encouraged him to find what he needed for himself in the harmony and serial organisation of the Second Viennese School composers, particularly Webern.

Coming to the music on this album afresh, the innocent ear need not be prepared by familiarity with the chamber-music writing of those modernist pioneers—the Lyric Suite of Berg, say, the Third Quartet of Schoenberg or the String Trio of Webern—but Elias shares with them a feeling for the natural rise and fall of a phrase even when modulated by a grammar of dissonance that converses more in diminished fourths, in sevenths and ninths than in the thirds and fifths of tonal practice. When an octave pokes out, as it does in the piano halfway through the Duo, the effect is not always of consonance refreshed but sometimes the arrival of an alien, perhaps even threatening presence.

Webern, Berg and their teacher Schoenberg believed in modernism’s potential not to vanquish melody but to renew it. In Elias’s music, melodic contours which may on a first encounter appear angular do not soften on deeper acquaintance so much as acquire a vitality that comes to feel inevitable, even necessary, as the natural expression of a composer’s voice which has always drawn connections between music and movement.

So it is with the Duo of 1970, which sets out its stall with the violin’s precipitous leap of over two octaves—immediately answered and amplified by the piano. Conceived in choreographic terms, the opening discloses elements of both intimacy and tension in the kind of edgy relationship familiar from the late Stravinsky/Balanchine ballets such as Agon. The two parts continue to circle and chase each other ‘in a kaleidoscopic manner,’ in the composer’s own words, with the violin periodically seeking refuge or the spotlight in the kind of high harmonics and feathery moto perpetuo writing which the piano cannot emulate.

There is a combative, strident quality to the Duo which seems to mark it out as young man’s music. Turn, though, to The House that Jack Built (2001), a work of Elias’s full maturity, and those daring leaps, those duets, exchanges and explosions are all still present, but now staged on a full-orchestral canvas. This is not to say that Elias was thinking of the early piece when he wrote the later one, only that nothing is missing from the Duo save for experience.

The challenging of capturing in sound the movement and colour and strength of light has inspired composers as distant from each other as Victoria and Debussy. Of Elutropia pursues this goal after Elias’s own fashion. He wrote it in 1982, taking his cue from a remarkably far-sighted 16th-century study of natural history by the English clergyman and scientist John Maplet.

Elutropia—we know it as heliotrope—is a precious stone, according to Maplet, possessed of magical properties: ‘in colour greene, or grassie,’ but refracting sunlight in such a way that it ‘darkneth the ayre in the maner of an Eclipse; and therfore it is called Elutropia as you would say, the Sunne his enimie.’ The precious stone becomes a metaphor for the act of composition, in which experience of the world is absorbed, filtered and then reflected back outwards by the composer’s imagination. ‘Magic’ is a term used by Elias himself in the past, and the translation of perception and experience into sound, the notion of the composer as a caster of spells, finds an echo in Yeats’s remark that the world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

According to the composer: ‘Without being programmatic, the music [in Of Elutropia] is constantly developed to try and mimic the way the shafts of light mutate through the gem, and the illusions and magic they create.’ The piece opens with and periodically returns to a wanly lit major third, before it switches on a harsh and unrelenting beam (more vaulting leaps). This just as quickly flickers into high harmonics before the piece begins anew, now rising from the cello’s C string into an increasingly confident set of dance moves: imagine Nureyev as Icarus, perhaps, ever nearing his goal and his downfall at once.

At any rate, Of Elutropia begins at its halfway point near what cellists call the snowline of their register, fluttering and trilling in a harmonically purer light than before. The stone is turned once more and the light becomes cloudier. Even while courting illustrative equivalence, it is hard to resist the notion of the climax as an analogue in sound for Maplet’s account of how the stone ‘maketh to appear a bloudie Sunne’.

In 1989, Elias wrote a study of the relationship between words and music. ‘I heard more different languages and dialects than I can name,’ he recalled of his early childhood in Bombay (now Mumbai). While speaking English and Hindi at home, he absorbed the Iraqi Arabic of his grandparents and the Hebrew of prayers at home and in the synagogue, as well as learning French and Marathi at school. ‘Rhythm rather than pitch is the connection between words and music,’ he says, and this insight may help us understand But when I sleep for solo viola, from 1987, as a response to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43. ‘When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see / For all the day they view things unrespected. / But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee …’

The opening motif fits the four words of the title as well as supplying the raw musical material for the rest of the piece. Without literally following the sonnet through its course like an instrumental setting, the piece rises and falls in a lilting rhythm that breathes with the iambic pentameter of the original verse. In no more than four plucked notes, the end transfigures the head-motif to distil the sonnet’s final couplet: ‘All days are nights to see till I see thee, / And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.’

The melodic contours of But when I sleep make the piece a satellite work to the large-scale setting of poems by Irina Ratushinskaya which Elias was contemplating at the time. In a similar way, rhythmic springs held taut in the Three Scherzi of 2004-7 then bounce and echo through the orchestral Doubles completed in 2009. The title refers back to the form as developed by Beethoven from the minuet and trio which commonly forms the third movement of Classical-era symphonies and sonatas: cast in a strong triple meter, though relaxing and surging with the ebb and flow of both earlier and later pieces gathered here, the initial Minuet of each piece is divided in two, and each half repeated. The gentler Trio section is likewise divided and repeated before a straight run-through of the Minuet.

The Three Scherzi pour new wine into old vessels. There is nothing borrowed, neoclassical or neo-anything about Elias’s music. The String Quartet of 2012 is cast in the four movements of classical convention, though played without a break. It also opens with a nimbly articulated theme in the first violin part which coincidentally covers all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. The discourse soon reaches a dead end, and a viola melody breaks in, muscular and double-stopped. The quartet’s first movement proceeds as a set of alternating double variations on these themes, such as we find in the slow movements of Haydn’s ‘Razor’ Quartet (Op 55 No 2) and ‘Drumroll’ Symphony (No 103). No Classical precedents, however, prepare the listener for the centrifugal force generated by Elias from the two themes.

The leader takes charge of the end of the first movement, and then spins a recitative over a ghostly tremolo to launch the second. Again, however, the viola takes over with a richly discursive solo, articulated by the kind of declamatory insistence of the cello part in L’innominata. The third movement bears the Mendelssohnian or Bartókian marking of sempre piano e leggiero: a nocturnal scherzo shot through with flickers of light and elusive focus.

The quartet’s finale opens slowly, though still preoccupied with the falling motif encountered in pizzicato form during the Scherzo. An inevitable point of crisis arrives and expels energy without achieving a decisive resolution. It is left to the first violin to pick up the scattered pieces of the initial 12-note theme, before arriving at a conclusion every bit as marked and yet surprising as the rest of Elias’s output would lead us to expect.

More than three decades on from Of Elutropia, a friendship with the cellist Natalie Clein began drawing Elias back to the cello as a solo instrument, firstly in the Cello Concerto of 2015, and then for a cello-and-piano piece premiered by her at the 2018 Purbeck International Chamber Music Festival. At first blush, the title of L’innominata (the unnamed, or nameless) deflects fixed ideas of what the piece is ‘about’, in the mould of postwar ‘[Untitled]’ canvases, as elusively lit from within as they are nonetheless figurative, by Italian modernist painters such as Giorgio Morandi.

It’s then worth remembering that the Judaism of Elias’s background is not the only faith to conceive of god in terms of the unnameable. There is a quality of hieratic pronouncement to the cello’s opening motif, a call to prayer—or to the listener’s attention—which introduces a swooping and soaring declamation articulated by bell-like chords in the piano. Whatever specifically religious or even spiritual connotations are thus evoked, Elias opens Doubles with a comparable strategy.

A slower episode heightens the mood of prayerful contemplation in the manner of Messiaen’s pair of ‘louanges’ (hymns of praise) which punctuate the Quartet for the End of Time. Gusts of semiquavers pick up and sweep through the centre of L’innominata—like the house filled with smoke in the vision of the prophet Isaiah—but the storm subsides into a translation of the work’s opening motif, which expands into a darker version of the previous ‘louange’ episode. The piece comes to rest on a subdued restatement of the opening motif.

When Elisabeth Lutyens died in 1983, Elias paid tribute to a voice and an output that ‘communicated not merely technique but an all-embracing attitude to composition … fine and powerful enough to be unforgettable and unforgotten.’ The tribute could equally stand for his own creative drive, ‘to write music that really matters to me and that has a real reason to exist’. Intent listening to the pieces gathered here will confirm how satisfyingly he has done so.

The orchestral pieces cited above are available on a pair of albums issued by the NMC label.

Peter Quantrill © 2024

It is a remarkable experience for me to have two albums of my music released simultaneously. The music performed represents a retrospective of my chamber music; the works on the string album span more than fifty years, and the music on the wind album cover more than thirty-five years. It is a great privilege to have so many extraordinarily talented musicians play these works with such fine style, comprehension and commitment, and I am immensely grateful to each one of them for all they have contributed. There can be no greater satisfaction for a composer to know that their work has been so well understood, accurately and imaginatively performed with such passion, and thereby, communicated to the listener authentically and with the utmost conviction.

Brian Elias © 2024

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