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Brian Elias (b1948)

Music for wind

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: 67 minutes 18 seconds

Cover artwork: Untitled (detail, 2018) by Anish Kapoor
All rights reserved 2024
Among the most stubbornly enduring theories—myths would be a better word—in classical music of the European tradition is the notion of its course running in two streams, and principally springing from German and Italian sources. Perhaps the theory had some historical use in distinguishing between vertical and horizontal ways of thinking about music, or (more likely) it simply satisfied a chauvinistic need for theorists and listeners from those countries to feel better about preferring the music of their own country.

At any rate, the ‘two streams’ theory seldom accounted for how composers actually write, and it seems quainter now than ever. None of which is to deny the specific and local character to particular forms and accents in music, sharing much with the language and culture of their place of origin. But composers are cosmopolitan souls, none more so in our own time than Brian Elias, born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1948. 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: ‘I heard more different languages and dialects than I can name’, he recalled of his early childhood.

Studying composition in London with Elisabeth Lutyens, Elias arrived quite early on—by his 20s—at a personal adoption of the language originally developed by the composers of the Second Viennese School: Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. He has held fast to the tenets of that language while refining it over the years, driven not by some larger project, or so it seems, but according to the nature of ideas and inspirations as they have arrived: back in 1990, Gerard McBurney referred to the ‘fine detail and local imagery’ in the music of Elias, whether conceived on a small or large scale. On this album of pieces for solo winds and strings, several of them share an Italian connection in their forms and titles.

With its overtones of caprice—fancy free—the Italian term Capriccio implies ‘a light-hearted and lively character with music that is generally fast and free,’ as Elias remarks in the preface to his piece for bassoon and string orchestra, written in 2020. All the same, Beethoven’s Rage Over a Lost Penny is a Capriccio, and it is in the nature of Capriccios to behave unpredictably just as people (including composers) do. Two further etymologies are drawn out by the composer: in art and architecture, a Capriccio refers to a fantasy ‘which combines various imagined buildings and archaeological structures. In addition, one of the sources of the word Capriccio is 'capretto' meaning kid, a young goat, with its erratic and unpredictable movements.’

So it is that the bassoonist sets out by leaping from ledge to foothold. The melodic contour of this opening solo defines both the harmony and the rhythm of the whole Capriccio as it develops through alternating quick and slow episodes in a kind of rondo. A double pair of repeating semiquavers (first heard in the double-bass, then the bassoon) often forms a twitch or a tail to a phrase, like the goat kicking its hind legs. At less than half speed, this motif then launches the first of the Capriccio’s slower sections. The bassoonist reverts somewhat to type as the lugubrious philosopher-clown—the kind of Umberto Eco figure brought to life by Berio in his Sequenza XIII, for example—with a cantabile soliloquy. More Italianate models of the solitary basso pass by in sketch form, suggested by an ornament here and a flourish there: Monteverdi’s Seneca, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

Such fancies aside, it is the architectural concept of the Capriccio that becomes a blueprint for the listener to this musical example. The artistic master of the Capriccio was Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), whose needle-fine drawings (in collections such as the Carceri d’invenzione, ‘Imaginary Prisons’) anticipate the work of Ludwig Escher in their staircases to nowhere and impossibly towering arches. The very act of combining post-Webernian harmony with a Baroque rondo form could be classed as a Piranesian Capriccio in its improbable reconciliation of elements. The Italians have a verb, sbarazzarsi: to let yourself go in an explosive moment of capriciousness bordering on madness. Such a moment arrives in the middle of the Capriccio, but later sections take on a graver tone even in the midst of their hopping rhythms, as if echoing the goat-song and dance known to the ancient Greeks as tragoedia, or what we call tragedy.

The slow, stepwise musing of the Capriccio’s coda becomes the head motif of the Arioso which Elias wrote for baritone saxophone around the same time, towards the end of 2020. Just as the Capriccio moved fluidly between slow and quick sections, so the Arioso stays true to its Italian archetype in alternating between song and recitative. Repeated notes ‘speak’ expressively on wind instruments in a way that cannot be so idiomatically achieved with voices or strings, and Elias uses them throughout the music on this album to articulate pauses for thought, hesitation and resolve. So too, wide intervals sound (and feel) less cumbersome on a saxophone than a cello in the same register, and Elias uses this flexibility to advantage, inflecting the phrases of both slow and quick sections with the precipitous chromatic leaps and descents which are a hallmark of his melodic writing.

The Oboe Quintet of 2016 is cast in five distinct sections, but in practice they form a continuous whole like the Capriccio, alternating fast and slow episodes, and the repeated-semiquaver motif also recurs as a punctuation mark. In a further resemblance to the Capriccio, the soloist’s opening phrase sets out a discursive theme to be argued over, adapted and translated throughout the course of the piece, with a Haydnesque economy of means and ingenuity also shared by the String Quartet (on a complementary Signum album of Elias’s chamber music for strings). This phrase encompasses all 12 tones of the chromatic scale, though it is not any kind of ‘tone row’ as formulated by Schoenberg and Webern.

When Nicholas Daniel gave the premiere with the Britten Sinfonia in 2017, Elias remarked that the Oboe Quartet of Mozart had set a formidable precedent. Within the last 50 years, Elliott Carter and Quincy Porter assimilated the pastoral air of the oboe with intricate chamber-scaled dialogue and their own, post-tonal harmonic languages. More than any of these predecessors, Elias casts the oboist as a concertante soloist and leader, to whom the strings play a supporting role, though not always supportive. The cello introduces a slower note of caution and reserve, still adapted in its circular semitonal motion from the oboist’s opening phrase, and this note is taken up by the other strings, notably the viola. Though the oboist exerts authority over the subsequent outburst, the viola’s solo makes a muted end to the first section.

The oboe begins afresh with a long-breathed, lyrical solo. This, too, receives an uncompromising response: we are in the realm of Virgil’s Eclogues, peopled by shepherds in their element but not at ease with it. There follows what might in other contexts be classed as a ‘faery’ Scherzo, but the gossamer Mendelssohnian string texture is belied by the oboe’s anxious recitative. In winding down, this leads naturally to a slow soliloquy—the expressive heart of the Quintet—which resists the certainty of a conventional finale no less than Vaughan Williams did in composing his Oboe Concerto, 70 years earlier.

Birds practise songs in dreams arose from a report in The Times in October 2000. American researchers had investigated the brain activity of sleeping zebra finches; they found that the finch ‘appears to store the neuronal firing patterns of song production during the day and reads it out at night, rehearsing the song, and perhaps, improvising variations.’

There is no literal Messiaenic imitation of the finch’s song in the fantasy which Elias derived from this promising subject. Rather, the clarinet embodies itself in characteristic runs and swoops, before stretching out particular intervals and phrases and rushing through others in a sequence of six variations. Elias captures the capricious nature of the listening mind (the human one, anyway, and perhaps the avian too) as it dwells on certain ideas, testing and trying them out, and the way that we hear music more rapidly in the mind’s ear than it plays out in real life. The last two variations accumulate the wild momentum of an Ornette Coleman solo in more repeated-note patterns before vanishing into unconsciousness.

The Five Bagatelles of 2021 return us to the unpredictable world of another Classical form adopted by Elias, and Beethoven, for some of their most sharply drawn ideas. In the first of them, the clarinet leaps where the bassoon plunges and vice versa, though from time to time they meet and scamper up and down a few steps together, like two characters at the crossing point of a staircase in another Piranesian carcere d’invenzione, or commedia dell’arte figures updated by Pirandello. No 2 presents a painterly perspective, of a moment frozen and extended in time, with the clarinet placed in the position of listener or student to the bassoon. Breaking rudely into their tentative accord, the brief No 3 is more of a Goldenberg and Schmuyle conversation, each part wedging itself in before the end of the other’s sentence, both with more to say than patience to listen. No 4 is a lyric duet in the operatic sense of the term, distilling intense affinity within the space of two minutes, before No 5 returns to a Pirandello world of thumbed noses and harlequin costumes.

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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