GAVIN HIGGINS (b.1983): Gursky Landscapes for String Quintet, Ekstasis for String Sextet (Piatti Quartet, David Cohen [cello], Sara Roberts [viola]), Ruins of Detroit for Piano Trio (Fidelio Trio), 7 Welsh Folk Songs for Solo Violin (Thomas Gould).

Catalogue Number: 10X070

Label: Nimbus

Reference: NI6421

Format: CD

Price: $18.98

Description: Higgins comes from a long line of brass band composers, and has contributed to the genre himself - but you would never guess it from his luminous, incandescent string writing in these works, which are quite distinct but share a preoccupation with visionary imagery of one sort or another. Gursky Landscapes (2015-18) are responses to five photographs by Andreas Gursky, famous for his enormous, more or less digitally manipulated images of vast natural or man made vistas, their human inhabitants reduced to microscopic near-irrelevance. Higgins' idiom makes frequent use of anchoring tonal harmony "found objects", large and slow-moving, with atonal surface detail; here, long lines suggest the expanses of the landscapes, post-minimalist scurrying and pizzicato embellishments the myriad details that make up the whole. The final movement is "Kathedrale", an architecturally impossible wall of bleached-out stained glass, derived from the windows of Chartres Cathedral, in a kind of post-apocalyptic vision. This ties the work to the 2014 piano trio, based on photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, of decaying, abandoned places in Detroit. These are striking examples of "ruin porn", a term used in a derogatory sense by residents trying - with increasing success - to rejuvenate the city. An opulent ballroom falling apart, represented by a vastly slowed-down waltz and frozen, glacial discord’s; a broken but still churning machine for the rusted memory of one of the "Motor City's" products; a wrecked upright piano in a school, its keys and hammers like a mouthful of decayed and missing teeth, in ghostly filigree piano textures against the frozen waltz from the first movement; these are the vivid, chilling images of a "lost" city presented here. While researching Welsh folksongs for another project, the composer started transcribing some of them for violin. The essence and distinctive character of these archaic songs of love and valor set in a rugged, misty landscape is preserved in Higgins' texturally rich arrangements, full of challenging chordal and polyphonic writing. Ekstasis explores various definitions of ecstasy and the means used to attain them, chemical, erotic, religious, and so on. The first movement refers to heightened hallucinogenic experiences, beginning with a blazing cluster almost worthy of 1960s Penderecki, though the cascading visions settle down rather after that, even attaining a kind of glowing, tonal sense of well-being. The surging, fluid opening of the second movement suggests bodies writhing in sexual union. Passion and tension rise, and the pornophonic climax is very similar to the drug-induced one of the previous movement. The frenzy of the Maenads is depicted in the hectically hyperactive pulsations of "We turn to the gods and are torn apart", counterbalanced by the static "new spirituality" of the meditative movement that follows. Finally, the mystical visions of Saint Teresa of Ávila, as immortalized in Bernini's statue, "The Ecstasy of St Teresa" with its much remarked-upon impression of a simultaneous religious and carnal climax, are evoked in shimmering cascades of searing brilliance, bringing the cycle of the work full circle.

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