The Strad Issue: January 2008
Musicians: Marieke Keser (violin) Elisabeth Smalt (viola) The Barton Workshop, Frank Denyer (director) James Fulkerson (director)
Composer: Frank Denyer

This disc of recent ensemble works by the British composer Frank Denyer (b.1943), currently professor of composition at Dartington College in Devon, has much to interest string players. Denyer has made extensive studies of non-Western musics, having worked in both Kenya and India, for example, and their influence shows in these works – not only in the instrumentation, which includes Indian sarangi and santur as well as many exotic percussion instruments, but also in the semi-theatrical, almost ritualistic atmosphere that his music creates. For example, in Woman, Viola and Crow, the most direct and impressive work on the disc, Denyer clothes the viola soloist in special shoes, to amplify her footsteps, and in a coat of rattles, which she shakes to punctuate her fragile melodies and vocalisations.

Elisabeth Smalt gives a hugely impressive performance of utter conviction – something entirely necessary in this fragile, evanescent music which often exists on the borders of silence. Smalt plays with immense subtlety and control, bringing purpose to often barely audible harmonics, brittle pizzicatos and breathy, whispered notes, which she combines with singing, humming or whistling. It seems as if some kind of abstract theatre or ritual is taking place – a feeling only emphasised by the sinister crow calls that Smalt sporadically emits.

If the other works on the disc are more enigmatic, they are no less persuasive. Neil Sorrell’s reedy sarangi lines bring an intense focus to Two Beacons, and Rozemarie Heggen’s double bass leads some unexpected climaxes, which dissipate almost as soon as they’ve begun. The muted violin and viola in Tentative Thoughts, Silenced Voices articulate fragments of melody and anguished glissandos, combined with a wealth of vocal effects from the players. The music is closely recorded and balanced, and every nuance is carefully picked out.   

David Kettle