Liz Johnson: Intricate Web

review johnson x1 cong

This album is an odd mix of the accessible and the avant garde. One minute you’re struggling with some very modern sounds, the next it’s easy on the ear and almost hummable. For the performers (Fitzwilliam String Quartet) it’s probably a lot of fun to play, the intense moments broken up by the playful.

CD1 (there are two) opens with the title track, which is sparse and sober — it was commissioned by the Bromsgrove Mixing Music Festival in 2003, the year of her father’s death, so perhaps not surprising. A photograph of a spider’s web was used as source material to generate a strange melodic line upon which the quartet is based. At first the mood is eerie, with moments of warmth, before “it becomes clear that we are trapped within a finite web”, as the sleeve notes say. Less about spiders and more about life and death, then. It is one of four string quartets in the programme.

The next piece is engaging, the cello suite Reflections of an Eccentric English Artist (2015) a suite for unaccompanied cello inspired by the life and work of artist Ben Hartley, based on the plainchant Ave Generosa but with the performer allowed to improvise on themes suggested by Hartley’s rustic images, reproduced in the excellent sleeve notes. In parts this piece is magnificent, though it is divided into three movements and spread across the two CDs. Images Of Trees was Johnson’s first instrumental piece, written as a masters student, but inspired by photos of trees, the image of which is also in the notes.

The first of two pieces inspired by Druidstone Beach in Pembrokeshire is next: Towards the Sea, which has clarinet, viola and cello making its way down a path to the sea; at the water’s edge the instruments come together in a series of gentle waves. (The other is Tide Purl, a short piece inspired by the play of light on sand as river water flowed onto the beach).

The clarinet quintet Sea-change (2016) was commissioned by clarinettist Ronald Woodley in 2010 with the brief to compose “something beautiful, extravagant, wild” for five of his different-sized clarinets ranging from the contrabass up to soprano clarinets in D and E flat. Johnson took six years, saying one of the key issues was to provide enough time for the clarinettist to change from one instrument to another. Her starting point for the piece is her experiences when trying to meditate, those moments following breath when thoughts intrude, from calm to nightmares. It’s a piece that sums up the CD really, easy moments followed by hard.

We could go on, but the sleeve notes (which you can download) explain it far better. It’s a varied album and challenging in places, but somehow draws the listener in. Out on Métier MSV77206.

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