Jonny Greenwood's 'Horror vacui' premieres at BBC Proms

Prom 70 Jonny Greenwood RAH 100919_873.JPG
Jonny Greenwood's violin concerto Horror vacui has been premiered to widespread acclaim as part of a late-night BBC Prom, curated by the composer himself. A BBC commission, the work was written for soloist Daniel Pioro, who was joined on the platform on 190 September by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Proms Youth Ensemble and conductor Hugh Brunt.
 
Performed to a near sell-out Royal Albert Hall, and broadcast on both BBC 4 TV and BBC Radio 3, Greenwood's major new work saw the composer manipulating the violin and massed strings to telling effect, taking as his inspiration electronic reverb and echo effects.
 
The 36-minute work is scored for solo violin and 68 solo string players (18.18.12.12.8).  It brought to a close the late-night event that also included Greenwood's piano piece 88 No 1, one of his Three Miniatures from 'Water' and works by Biber, Penderecki and Reich. Greenwood also took to the stage, performing tampura and bass guitar.
 
… a cleverly conceived and superbly executed Prom from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, under the incisive and perfectly precise baton of Hugh Brunt…
 
As for Greenwood’s own pieces, they proved that as a composer he continues to grow. The gentle, mystically perfumed violin-and-piano patterns of Water, unfolding over twanging drones on the Indian tanpura played by Greenwood and Nicholas Magriel, and the dazzling piano virtuosity of 88 (No 1), played with steel-fingered assurance by Katherine Tinker, were certainly engaging. But his new piece, composed for Daniel Pioro and the 68 superb solo string players of the BBC NOW and BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, was on a different level of ambition.
 
This was a delightfully naïve yet sophisticated exercise in re-imagining sound-effects obtainable in a studio, such as booming reverberations, or repeated “dying-away” echoes, or uncanny slidings of whole sound-complexes up and down. Every sad drooping phrase or vehement outburst or glassy high note from the violin was seized on and magically transformed by the string players, who were sometimes called on to blow into or slap their instruments.
 
… it was easily the most engaging premiere of the season so far.’  
The Telegraph (Ivan Hewett), 11 September 2019
 
 'There is no shortage of people from the world of rock entering the ambit of “serious” orchestral composition. But even many of the better practitioners – Jóhann Jóhannsson or Clint Mansell, for example – write music that often betrays their background in the digital world. You can almost hear the vestiges of music-making software in their arrangements, as if they have been plotted on graph paper.
 
This is never the case with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, whose orchestral film scores have an intense rigour and musicianship that are certainly on display tonight. We hear extracts from his 2012 suite Water, for instance, which was composed entirely in the octatonic scale popular with Rimsky-Korsakov and Messiaen – but here Greenwood gives the melody the intensity of an Indian raga by playing an accompanying drone on a tambura. His devilishly complex piece for solo piano, 88, is brilliantly executed by pianist Katherine Tinker, who sounds as though she’s playing a transcription of a Thelonious Monk solo at double-speed…
 
The centrepiece, however, is the premier of Greenwood’s Horror vacui. At first it’s hard to work out what is happening: Pioro is playing at the front of the stage, surrounded by 68 strings players who have been placed, almost confrontationally, on raised platforms, and it sounds as though Pioro’s woozy, angular violin solo is being treated electronically. Eventually you realise that the echoes and digital delays are all being reproduced by the string section in real time.
 
Greenwood trained as a violinist and is clearly fascinated by the glitches and irregularities of stringed instruments, and here the players appear to be using plectrums or the backs of their bows to recreate ghostly electronic effects. It’s a startling, terrifying and challenging way to end a compelling Prom.'
The Guardian (John Lewis), 11 September 2019
 
‘Arranged in a fan shape across the stage, the orchestra had the lowest sounds at the back in the form of eight double basses and twelve cellos, with ten violas just in front of those. That left just the 38 violins in front, each of the 68 instrumentalists having their own specific part.
 
Greenwood’s directions for conductor Hugh Brunt were unconventional, his arm often sweeping across the ensemble from left to right and back again so that each instrument knew when to come in and fade away. This created a powerful visual and aural effect, the string players’ bows rising and falling like a sound wave.
 
Greenwood explained how Horror vacui is the fear of empty space, usually in paintings. This was vividly captured not just from the dense orchestration but from Daniel Pioro’s superbly played solo violin part. With incredibly secure intonation he excelled in the pure upper register passages, the notes soaring effortlessly towards the ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall. Beneath him the textures were always changing, sometimes secured by players blowing into their instruments, literally breathing life into them, or from deep-piled chords, some of which were huge blocks of consonant sound… There was still a substantial coda to follow, which ended in a pure C major with Pioro back up in the heights…
 
Horror vacui is a very impressive and engaging piece of work – and here, with the orchestra under the leadership of the energetic Lesley Hatfield, it received the best possible performance.’
Arcana.fm (Ben Hogwood), 10 September 2019
 
‘It’s rare to hear a tanpura (let alone two) played at a Prom, and their gentle twanging drone (underscored by a held note in the low strings) anchored the crystalline drops of the piano notes and the angular solo violin descant of Greenwood’s own third movement of Three Miniatures from ‘Water’ to great effect.
 
The instruction for Greenwood’s 88 (No. 1) for solo piano is “Like Thelonius Monk copying Glenn Gould playing Bach”, and Katherine Tinker managed to get this spot on. Although she didn’t hum along, she applied a detached quality – so typical of Gould – not only to the early sections of ‘placed’ phrases (many with their Monk-style Scotch snaps attached) but also to the furiously busy contrapuntal passages of overlapping arpeggios and runs; her dexterity with wrists and forearms to play the splashy note clusters of the closing passages was impressive indeed…
 
Greenwood’s Horror vacui, a work for violin and 68 strings, received its premiere with Pioro and the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble. It’s a piece that aims to reproduce, in seven movements and with traditional instruments, the different reverb/echo effects available to electronic instruments. The performance was full of fascinating sonic effects: an initial pianissimo multi-note susurration suggesting a distant echo of all the music played so far; an overlapping repetition of a note-bending phrase begun in the basses that moved upwards through the strings like the spreading of a blot of ink on wet paper – there was stamping, string slapping and the sound of players blowing into their F-holes. The solo violin part (played by Pioro with supreme poise and confidence), as with any concerto, both led and became part of the texture, and included a couple of sharp-cornered, almost serial cadenzas.’
musicOMH.com (Barry Creasy), 12 September 2019
 
(Photo credit: Mark Allan)