Tansy Davies’s own instrument, the horn, has always occupied a special place in her music – buzzing away abrasively in her Falling Angel, or crying out with yearning in her orchestral labyrinth Wild Card – but it is especially spotlighted in her latest project, a concerto for four horns and orchestra entitled Forest.
Co-commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and the Warsaw Autumn Festival (where Davies’s trumpet concerto Spiral House was received with acclaim in 2014) the 20-minute work was the brainchild of Esa-Pekka Salonen (a horn player himself ), who conducted Forest in Basingstoke, London and Madrid. The Philharmonia’s current principal horns, Katy Woolley and Nigel Black, were joined by two of their predecessors, Richard Watkins and Michael Thompson.
Teeming with what the Guardian called an ‘inventive energy’, Forest pits the quartet of soloists against a vast tapestry of orchestral sound. ‘The four horns represent the most human element of the work, and the journey of the piece is a growing dialogue between the soloists and the orchestra – or forest – that surrounds them,’ says Davies. Whilst much of the music is visceral and almost violent, there are moments of dreamlike repose, too. In the words of Davies: ‘We arrive at a point of absolute stillness and rest there for a long time. Something has melted and there is a fusion between the forest and the horns, at which point the horn players start playing only natural harmonics.’ The music culminates in one final raucous dance – marked ‘crisp and funky’ – before dissolving away into shimmering strings.
Watch the Philharmonia's film about Forest here
‘A striking addition to that niche repertoire… The writing for the solo quartet is generally less about individualism and extrovert display than using them as a group to counterbalance rather than dominate the orchestra… The horn writing regularly alludes to the instrument’s traditional associations, though never in an obvious, anecdotal way; the calls and riffs of the quartet thread themselves through the orchestral busyness as part of that soundworld while keeping their separateness.’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 22 February 2017
‘Bright, supple and fleet-footed. The performance directions barely hint at the physical heft of this concerto, or the extremes of temperature it suggests. Hot slaps of colour from vibraphone, marimba and glockenspiel and frigid slitherings from trilling violins kick-start refracted fanfares. Instead of indulging in the horn’s lyrical voice, Davies keeps the quartet hard-edged and boxy, stamping the figures in close overlap. Raw mouthfuls of what sound like Mahler are bitten and spat out. This is not polite, deferential music, but as a retort to Schumann’s pine-scented Konzertstück it has grit and wit.’
The Times (Anna Picard), 27 February 2017
‘It was as if the composer had put her head to the ground and recreated the roars and crackles of the forest.’
‘Davies showed her affinity for the instrument… The soloists, playing mainly in consort, stride whooping, signalling, calling, through their own sonic landscape. Delicate tissues of sound, with glissandi and rapid trills across the entire ensemble, were offset by tangy percussion – drums and bells, tin cans, cabasa and rattle. It was as if the composer had put her head to the ground and recreated the roars and crackles of the forest.’
The Observer (Fiona Maddocks), 27 February 2017
‘Tension-filled and incident-packed’
‘It was Forest which stole the show… what a piece. Davies has created a compelling opus concerning creation, nature and renewal, which might be heard as more urban than naturalistic, for this is a wailing woodland – sinister, nightmarish – in which the large orchestra and the soloists vie for supremacy or act as a lavishly detailed and active combo. In terms of references, Benjamin (fi nesse), Birtwistle (legend) and Ligeti (whimsy) came to mind occasionally without being dominant. Davies has composed a tension-fi lled and incident-packed piece that goes beyond the potential showmanship of the title; indeed it is deep and thought-provoking. Forest sustains its twenty-three minutes compellingly and with satisfaction… hopefully it will soon be recorded.’
Classical Source (Colin Anderson), 23 February 2017