On 1 December Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble performed Tansy Davies’ Undertow (1999 rev. 2018) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, at Queen’s University Belfast, conducted by Jonathan Mann.
The title of the 6-minute piece describes the way instruments and lines rise and submerge as it unfolds, pulled along by various currents. It begins with a solo piano – “are we in a cocktail lounge, or overhearing one of Nancarrow’s pianolas?”, asked Paul Griffiths of the opening – that presents handfuls of notes in syncopated rotations, gradually pulling the rest of the quintet in. At times the surface of the piece suddenly turns smooth and glistening, and at others it presents more volatile and turbulent transformations. The concluding section is marked ‘underwater’: a slow finale starts to pull the bobbing instruments beneath the surface, the undertow finally winning out.
Undertow was commissioned by Chroma and first performed in 1999. Its first version received numerous performances across the UK from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group; in 2018 the London Sinfonietta gave the world premiere of the revised version.
As with many pieces by Davies, Undertow draws inspiration from elemental forces. Plumes (2019), which received its North American from Gustavo Gimeno and the Toronto Symphony in October 2023, is shaped by the currents and confluences of the River Tyne in Newcastle. Aquatic (2011), a 10-minute duet for cor anglais (or saxophone) and percussion, imagines the bizarre prehistoric creatures that used to dwell on the Cambrian seafloor.
Looking ahead, Leeds Lieder have announced the world premiere of new songs by Davies commissioned for the 2024 Festival for mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska and Joseph Middleton. The songs are settings poems by Nick Drake who previously wrote the libretti for Davies’ stage works Cave and Between Worlds. In 2023 Mark Padmore opened the Leeds Lieder Festival with a performance of Davies’ Destroying Beauty, a setting of John Clare – a piece he performs again with Roger Vignoles at London’s Conway Hall on 28 January.