Gwyn Pritchard was born in 1948 and has a varied career as a cellist and teacher. He is currently a professor at Trinity Laban. Features and Formations, released to celebrate his 75th birthday, includes five ensemble works (a quintet, two quartets and a trio) and three pieces for solo piano. All these performed by the distinguished Swiss contemporary music group Ensemble ö! conducted by Francesc Prat. The piano solos are by their pianist Asia Ahmetjanova.
He is of the generation that includes Michael Finnissy and Brian Ferneyhough, and like them is interested in pre planning and mathematics as a part of his compositional process – he uses an algorithmic sequence generator. Listening to the works on this disc, demonstrates that his are not as challenging as the works of his more famous contemporaries, though they do require a shift of aural gears and of expectations.
The earliest piano piece From Time To Time (1999) and the most recent Calling (2022) inhabit a similar sound world, and at least exhibit a consistency in his musical thought. Both make use of the second and third pedals to capture harmonic echoes of the violent outbursts. This is most effective in Calling, where an, almost, sustained melodic line is accompanied by a skittish commentary. Tide (2014) is very different beginning and ending with a hypnotic, quiet space, which is gradually assaulted by some aggressive interjections.
The ensemble works display an imaginative and clear ear for instrumental timbre – he teaches orchestration at Trinty Laban. Res, inspired by a book of photographs of found objects in a museum in Pompeii, makes much play of extreme harmonics on the violin and cello. The piano left hand provides a mostly pulsing accompaniment.
I am always fascinated in the works of Xenakis – one of the first composers to use mathematical principles in his music- how something constructed mathematically, or even by computer, can sound so primitive and visceral. I am not making claims that Mr Pritchard is up there with that giant of contemporary music. But his structuring of his sound world demonstrates a keen ear for pacing and structure that far exceeds a mathematical starting point.
The musicians are specialists in this type of music – they would have to be – and present the music as far more than just notes. Their endeavours are beautifully captured by the engineers. The liner notes by Tim Rutherford-Jones go into far more detail than I could do here, or even attempt.
Review by Paul RW Jackson