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Formed around a text by the twelfth century Welsh writer and cleric, Giraldus Cambrensis, The Conquest of Ireland is—as with so much of Barry’s music—a clash between the solemn and the ridiculous. Cambrensis was part of the army that invaded Ireland in the twelfth century and his book recounts the events of the invasion with a dry and surprisingly keen focus on the soldiers themselves. For Barry, the text has a ‘strange detached quality’, something that he was keen to counter in his setting, which blisters with passion and conviction even as it recounts the mundane. The score is riddled with directions to play ‘exuberantly!’ while the text is anything but. ‘Richard had reddish hair and freckles, grey eyes and a feminine face, a weak voice and a short neck, though in almost all other respects he was of a tall build’, Cambrensis writes meagrely, while Barry keeps the music alert and rhythmically charged.
Typically, we are introduced to the bass soloist without ceremony. The voice enters, as though in a blast of rapid gunfire, in strict unison with the bass clarinet, the words barely audible as the two jostle to ride the seemingly endless succession of semiquavers. Eventually, this softens into a section of long, chromatic lines for wind and marimba, but any tenderness is not part of the text: here the writer imagines the reader ‘despising’ the book and ‘wrinkling his nose in disgust’ at the page.
Having excerpted his text from a source that includes plenty of action, Barry deliberately targets the trivial. We are treated to an account that flits between the banal details of the soldiers’ appearances and Cambrensis’ attempts to justify his own writing. Coupled with the visceral and at times shocking nature of Barry’s score, it presents a rather compelling form of contrast. ‘I like the tension, or almost contradiction between that matter-of-factness and the rather violent, passionate interpretation that I applied to it’, Barry has said. This is not a grand, overblown depiction of a life lived and lost in glory on the battlefield, but instead a more human account of a group of soldiers who are just people after all, weak voiced and short of neck.
from notes by Jo Kirkbride © 2020
|Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 4, 5 & 6|
Impeccable performances of Beethoven's middle three symphonies are here presented alongside Gerald Barry's enterprising viola concerto (with soloist Lawrence Power) and the extreme cantata 'The Conquest of Ireland' (bass Joshua Bloom and a text by ...» More