Lawrence Ball: Energy Diamond
Navona Records

No one will ever mistake Lawrence Ball for a New Complexity composer: if Energy Diamond is representative of Ball's style, his musical world is far different from that of Michael Finnissy's or Brian Ferneyhough's. Whereas the technical demands involved in performing their compositions can be considerable, Ball's pieces, on this collection at least, are less taxing for the musician to execute. That shouldn't necessarily be construed as a criticism, however, for the chamber-styled settings on Energy Diamond are certainly appealing. And their seeming simplicity might well be misleading, considering that his music blends an intuitive approach to composition with one rooted in a rigorous, systems-based methodology (it's been described as an algorithmic “Harmonic Maths” system of composition).

Energy Diamond is a much different release than the double-CD set he released on Navona in 2012, Method Music, which used as its foundation material The Who's Pete Townshend had developed for his own solo project Lifehouse and on the group release Who's Next (Townshend, incidentally, served as co-producer for Method Music). Whereas synthesizers figured heavily on the earlier Ball set, the new one features settings for piano, cor anglais, and strings played by solo musicians and the Cor Anglais Quartet.

If there's another composer to which Ball might conceivably invite comparison, it's Gavin Bryars for the simple reason that both favour patiently developing passages that progressively modulate in various ways; one could even suggest a connection between Ball and Arvo Part, though the former's music eschews the deep spiritual dimension of the latter's. While a number of Ball's pieces do unfold at a slow and measured pace, others are lively by comparison; not only is 1998's The Clown suitably jaunty, one also hears in pianist Javier Negrin's rendering of it clear evidence of Ball's mathematical side. Negrin also delivers a strong performance in his sensitive reading of 1998's Piano Suite 4, whose two parts play like some slow, entranced improvisation on the pianist's part, as does Neil Davis in his highly rhythmic realization of 1990's four-part Viola Suite 2.

Arguably the release's most memorable piece, the two-part title composition is realized with great care and feeling by the Cor Anglais Quartet. Adding to the piece's appeal is the sonorous contrast between Althea Talbot-Howard's cor anglais (imagine a bassoon and oboe combined into a single instrument) and the strings, not to mention the patient deliberation with which each member carries the melodic material along. Pitched at the dynamic level of a murmur, the first part gently advances meditatively, whereas the faster second one uses artful counterpoint to makes its presence felt.

Caveats? At fifteen minutes, 1985's Fractal Study 2 is overlong, even if its endlessly chiming patterns are executed faultlessly by pianist Alessandra Celletti, and in a perfect world, the superfluous applause that follows some pieces (many performances are live takes recorded at Ball's own Planet Tree Music Festival between 1995 and 2011) might have been better excluded from the release, but such complaints are of the minor variety.

September 2016