“Hellawell’s is an alert, engaging, absorbingly intelligent musical mind”
“Exceptionally scrupulous music.”
Some recent reviews
Wild Flow, BBC Proms 2016
"Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow – a BBC commission and world premiere - deployed a fragmented compositional style to great effect. This was a hugely entertaining new work that conjured with exciting, inventive and immersive textures, particularly at the beginning of the second movement. Wild Flow had clearly been orchestrated with passion. The work was full of drama. I really connected with it. "
Jon Jacob, thoroughlygood.me
"For its visit to this year’s Proms, the Ulster Orchestra and its chief conductor,Rafael Payare, brought a new work by the English-born, Belfast-based Piers Hellawell, who turns 60 this year. At 20 minutes long, Wild Flow consists of five pieces with faster outer sections framing a central slow movement. Hellawell suggests that rather than developing organically, the result “offers a zigzag progression of mood and event”; he’s also distrustful of the notion of music being “about” something beyond its musical meaning. So if the piece itself registered as bitty – a sequence of diverse individual episodes without much sense of a larger picture – that was presumably deliberate, though there were certainly moments of striking character, colour and texture along the way, with sudden bursts of manic activity offset by moments of uneasy stasis – though rarely of calm. This premiere performance felt entirely assured. "
"The concert opened with the world première of Belfast-based Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow, a five-movement work around 20 minutes long; the key piece is its central slow movement, cocooned and contrasted by the surrounding four. Hellawell’s writing creates a soundscape of stalagmites: sharp and initially independent of each other with no natural growth and development. Easily the most striking thing about the piece is its percussion, exceptionally well-played here: the first movement opens with a frantic chime that gave me a sense of time running out, of things not yet finished, whilst the second movement was skilfully atmospheric with a touch of horror from pulsing strings that wouldn’t be out of place in a high-quality film score; the percussion countered this with a haunting air. The third movement, in my opinion the most naturally beautiful, swept with brooding ponder, the brass and percussion giving jolts of contrasting colour. The fraught nature of the fourth, culminating in peaceful light woodwind and triumphal brass, had an air of acceptance to it. This is a piece worth hearing again. "
Dominic Lowe, Bach Track
"The most recent Proms premières have demonstrated particularly keenly the highly differentiated approaches being taken by this year’s crop of composers, and while some works at first glance appear to be nothing but effervescence and froth, closer examination proves otherwise. In the case of Piers Hellawell‘s new orchestral work Wild Flow, dedicated to and given its first performance by the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Payare, there’s plenty of froth, though it’s been whipped up into a particular dense and sticky consistency. Composed also to mark his own 60th birthday, Hellawell’s aim was to write “immediate” music that “wants to uplift and exalt the spirit”. Four of the work’s five movements are fast and energetic, around a slower central section. The opening, to a clanging bell, suggests the first round in a boxing match, and while Wild Flow isn’t exactly pugilistic, it certainly displays a kind of Varèsian muscularity crossed with a curiously gymnastic melodic attitude. Music seeking to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, perhaps?
It’s not just a display of blank energy, though; Hellawell’s approach to orchestration is interesting and often unpredictable, but in part this is because the material itself has a pronounced spontaneous quality, meaning that what happens next is always far from certain. The second movement is noteworthy in this respect, characterised by weird squidgy chords with assorted asides, developing into something of a continuation of earlier, its aggressive jauntiness not unlike being punched in the face by someone dressed as a clown. The conclusion, where the conflict fizzles out (forever being tickled from stage left by an insistent kalimba) is particularly nice, setting up the more expansive central episode that explores some beautifully tender ideas. Hellawell breaks it up with outbursts of agility but they’re restrained, only making the atmosphere here more movingly intense. He then ramps up the energy again, the brief fourth movement squally and disjointed, in which a central melodic thread is continually yanked around and re-coloured, while the playful fifth is all about rhythm and momentum. I must confess on a first listening Wild Flow seemed rather frivolous and annoying, but I’ve really warmed to it on further listenings; there’s a huge amount of invention (more than can be easily grasped on a single hearing), an original approach to orchestral writing and it’s both fun and surprisingly touching without resorting to cliché. "
Simon Cummings, 5:4
"The concert included…. the first performance of Wild Flow, a BBC commission, from Piers Hellawell, the English composer who has for quite a while taught at Queen’s University, Belfast. As a resident who observed the difficulties of what he called in his program note, “the darkest period” of the Ulster Orchestra’s history close hand, he dedicated Wild Flow to the orchestra and its champions. The work consists of five movements, with a central slow movement, a continually expanding and intensifying chorale inlaid with soloistic wind writing, preceded and followed by two fast movements, all of those with a somewhat aphoristic character. Hellawell described the work in his notes, as offering a zigzag progression of mood and events, and that mercurial quality is what lingers strongly in the memory. The music is admirably distinctive and personal, somewhat quirky, brilliantly and colorfully orchestrated, highly rhythmic, and always engaging and appealing. The performance had a liveliness and verve matching that of the music. "
Rodney Lister, Sequenza21 (NY)
Piani, Latebre at 2016 Cheltenham Festival
"The other piano recital of the afternoon was more conventional, but only slightly. Claire Hammond offered a programme of five works, all of which married musical invention with the evocation of strange imaginary worlds. Two of them were written to accompany silent films. The most striking piece was Piers Hellawell’s Piani, Latebre, which took conventional pianistic bric-a-brac-like scales and tremolandos and made them seem rich and strange."
Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph
"Clare Hammond’s early evening performance was far more conventional but in its own way just as dramatic. Three of the five works she tackled concerned themselves with inspirations from drama, with respect to both literature and film. The exceptions were the three Mazurkas by Thomas Adès and the equally tripartite Piani, Latebre by Piers Hellawell, each of which explored more purely musical ideas. Hellawell built his music upon the juxtaposition of gestures, having a similar trajectory to that of Adès; a melodic sensibility set within bursts of filigree and ornamentation (very beautiful) led to the sensation of making brisk progress through clouds of turbulence, dissipating into a pensive contemplation pitting clarity against density, closing in relative darkness. Hammond’s ability to tease out the details of Hellawell’s complex textures was as riveting as the music itself, her fingers regularly becoming a blur.."
Simon Cummings, 5:4 Blog
Stone Composer in Residence, 2016 Great Lakes Festival, Detroit USA
"Hellawell and Huw Watkins are well-known in Britain, but blank slates here. Feted with "composer portrait" programs at the DIA a week ago Sunday, they proved quite different in temperament. Hellawell's music was more unpredictable in the way it mixed traditional sounds and textures with experimental ones, such as the ghostly effects caused by attaching clothespins to the cello strings. There was an abstract cast to his harmony and gestures, but also a clarity and economy of means that kept the music from wandering off course.
The compelling "Driftwood on Sand" for string quartet allowed the players to mix and match short and long movements in the order of their own choosing. At times it hovered ethereally. At times it glided forward melodically. At times it lurched ahead aggressively in spiky attacks. At the end, the music slipped into a rhythmic beat, the cellist tapping out rhythms with the bow on the strings and his hand on the wood. Groovy!
The San Francisco-based Friction Quartet, another Shouse ensemble, brought a charismatic urgency and fierce commitment to the piece; and the quartet didn't lose its poise when it had to suddenly stop for one of the players to fix a broken string.
Finally, of the 10 festival concerts I heard, the most satisfying was last Wednesday at Temple Beth El. The clever program paired Schubert's beloved "Trout" quintet for piano, violin, viola, cello and bass with two British works written a century apart for the same instrumentation: Vaughan Williams's early Piano Quintet in C minor (1903) and Hellawell's "Weaver of Grass" (2003). Hellawell's relatively brief quintet smiled puckishly as it moved from spare, Anton Webern-like gestures into an abstract, jazzy jig. "
Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press
Up By The Roots, Dublin City Art Gallery
"Whereas Verklarte Nacht glowed, Up by the Roots, which preceded it, bristled with an imaginative scenario that fused music, poetry and a whiff of operatic indulgence into a most unusual creation.
Basically it involved Fidelio, English composer Piers Hellawell and Belfast poet Sinéad Morrissey in a presentation in which text, read by Morrissey, became the dominating factor. The poem, depicting primeval migration to different and dangerous lands, resonated strongly with the refugee crisis today. "
Dick O’Riordan, Dublin Sunday Business Post
Airs, Waters CD on Delphian DCD34114:
"Piers Hellawell is amongst the most interesting and rewarding of contemporary British composers. His work is an uncompromising search for new means of expression, which is nonetheless able to carry the listener along with it. There is enough in the narrative surface of the music to lure you in with bold and arresting sonic imagery, but also enough below the surface to bear up to repeated listening. Hellawell also writes the most thought-provoking liner notes, which delve into the compositional process and intention as well as giving practical guides to listening to the music.
This is Hellawell’s first CD on the Delphian label, following a number of releases on Metronome, including the marvellous ‘Dogs and Wolves’ from 2008. This is, likewise, a collection of both orchestral and chamber pieces dating back as far as 1990; the centrepiece, and highlight, is the ‘kind-of’ clarinet concerto Agricolas, completed in 2008. The piece has a clearly articulated sectional structure linked by ‘bridges’ and divided into two larger movements. The clarinet writing is lithe and full of excited energy, and the orchestration is sophisticated, often reduced to chamber-sized combinations or focusing on individual instruments. The piece manages at once to be a mosaic of fragments and constantly changing textures, and yet to project a thread through the whole, possibly due to the self-generating chaconne technique that Hellawell calls his ‘escalator series’. This series is also at work in Degrees of Separation, a chamber orchestral work written for the opening of the Sage arts centre, in Gateshead. This piece develops two types of material alongside each other in a journey from extreme activity at the beginning to prolonged calm at the end. As with Agricolas there is a breezy confidence to the progress of the music; bustling activity characterises the first few minutes, with the reduced instrumental forces focusing attention on the details in the scoring. The playing by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra is razor-sharp, and tightly controlled by Pierre-André Valade.
Although the chamber music lacks the immediate impact of the orchestral pieces, there are similar concerns and procedures evident. Airs, Waters and Floating Islands (1995), for piano, sets opposing blocks of musical material against each other and explores the results of the collision. Etruscan Games (2007), for piano trio, gives the spotlight to each of the players in turn, before bringing them all together in a ‘turbulent confluence’ of complex counterpoint. Perhaps the only piece that threatens to outstay its welcome is the elegy Jan Palac and the Flaming Skier, originally scored for violin and orchestra but here in an arrangement with piano; the loss of the orchestral colour dims the effect, despite Darragh Morgan’s intense playing.
Hellawell writes in his notes that he never wants to ‘risk lazy expediencies taking the place of expressive urgency and truth’, and in this music he absolutely doesn’t. His is music of great humanity – whether its surface is being combative, witty or warm – and evidence of a first-rate musical imagination in constant conversation with the wider world."
Bernard Hughes, Tempo
"These six diverse pieces reveal the vividness of Hellawell's ideas, the deftness of their execution and exploration, and his effective use of abrupt contrasts. Agricolas (2008) is a hugely attractive clarinet concerto, a mosaic of encounters subtly united by a harmonic ground. Robert Plane plays the solo part with a flair matched by Pierre-Andre Valade'sforces. Orchestra and conductor are equally good in Degrees of Separation (2004), a gradual dissipation of a burst of energy. Mary Dullea comes to the fore on two cleverly shaped piano works."
Stephen Pettit, The Sunday Times
"A composer often underestimated, Piers Hellawell has amassed a substantial output which has been the focus of several discs, this latest taking in six works from almost two decades of creativity.. Earliest is Jan Palac and the flaming skier (1990), its commemorating of those who fell at the collapse of the Iron Curtain expressed in obliquely blues-inflected terms. The piano pieces confirm an idiomatic and, moreover, unselfconscious approach to the medium – the inventive play on clusters and chorales of Airs, Waters and Floating Islands (1995) being complemented by the breezily engaging motivic variants of Basho (1997). Degrees of Separation (2004) is a lucid and luminous orchestral study in gradually decelerating momentum, while Etruscan Games (2007) is nominally a four-movement piano trio – the expressive essence of its initial three movements reconfigured and elaborated during the lengthy and cumulative finale. Most impressive, however, is Agricolas, its two movements comprising six main sections connected by bridge passages analogous to the objects and supports found in sculpture, and whose Epilogue is a synthesis of affecting pose.
The performances do the music proud, not least the limpidly precise pianism of Mary Dullea and soulful clarinet playing of Robert Plane, while the sound has a clarity and perspective equally evident in solo and chamber as in orchestral pieces. Hellawell himself contributes extensive booklet notes in which his concern for the efficacy of work titles leads him to some thought-provoking conclusions – a quality that is seldom, if ever, absent from his compositions."
Richard WhitehouseThe Gramophone
"The impressive range of Piers Hellawell's work is displayed on this collection of six compositions, five of which are premiere recordings. The orchestral piece Degrees of Separation is a fascinating study of initial momentum dissolving into musical entropy, while the piano solo Basho is named not for the poet but the sumo contest, reflected in its 15 brief tussles between major and minor. Another piano piece, Airs, Waters and Floating Islands, shifts between bluesy runs and more reflective passages; blues echoes are also discernible in Agricolas, featuring clarinet and orchestra in a succession of whirligig encounters whose inquisitive, expectant figures are stained with urban mystery: a large-scale palette applied with the most delicate of brushwork."
Andy Gill, The Independent
"From the Messiaen-like ecstasy of Agricolas for clarinet and orchestra – a gorgeously impassioned work played by Robert Plane and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra – to the suspended images of Airs, Waters and Floating Islands for solo piano (Mary Dullea), and the quirky transparency of Etruscan Games for piano trio, this compendium of music by Ulster-based Piers Hellawell is a rich kaleidoscope of inspired creativity. It doesn’t end there. The same RTE orchestra, under Pierre-André Valade, capture the glitzy freneticism of Degrees of Separation, despite some iffy unison violin intonation. Music well worth getting to know."
Ken Walton, The Scotsman
Etruscan Games on tour, 2009
"Piers Hellawell’s Etruscan Games (2007) was largely abstract with a form which concentrated on the primary role played by each of the three instruments in the trio in the first three shorter sections of the work before a larger scale finale worked at binding these ideas together. The opening movement highlighting the piano was forceful, stormy and gusty with splendidly brittle piano playing from Mary Dullea. In the second part, Darragh Morgan and his violin took centre stage with some fascinating special effects in the background from both piano and cello. It was nice to see these used properly as an integral part of the musical texture and not simply stuck in for the sake of seeming contemporary. In the third section, the Trio’s splendid cellist Robin Michael took over and delivered his most expressively beautiful playing. In the finale Piers Hellawell proved to us that he has a unique musical voice that can handle intricacy of form in a way that really punches through to the audience."
Alan Cooper, Glasgow Herald
“Violinist Darragh Morgan joined the two to complete the trio and give the Irish premiere of Hellawell’s 2007 Etruscan Games. The first three movements spotlight each instrument in turn before the fourth and concluding movement combines aspects of all three. This grand finale ably drew together echoes of the piano’s sharply rhythmic chords, the violin’s harmonics accompanied by drumming on the cello and the plucking of piano strings, and the slow pace and mysterious mood of the cello with its snatches of plaintive melody. Somehow these disparate elements worked fulfillingly together, all the more persuasive for the Fidelios’ committed playing.“
Michael Dungan, Irish Times
Dogs and Wolves CD on Metronome MET CD 1076:
Who Let the Dogs Out? Here's an evocative and engaging showpiece
"A further disc of Piers Hellawell from Metronome, all of pieces dating from 1998-2005 and judiciously planned as an overall programme. At its centre is Drifwood on Sand, its 'main movements' - respectively brooding and capricious - each framed by four 'preludes' placing them in instructive relief (and a sequence open to various permutations, as Hellawell is keen to impress upon the listener). Either side of this work for string quartet come two pieces for mixed ensemble: Weaver of Grass draws its disjunct fragments into a cumulative yet unpredictable whole, as befits its singular inspiration, while The Building of Curves draws from its two movements - the first as combative as the second is understated - a tellingly diverse unity. Framing these pieces are two orchestral works: virtuoso in its writing for trumpet and trombone, Cors de chasse feels unduly overloaded with incidental detail for the composer's stated formal and expressive trajectory to be fully evident; something that Dogs and Wolves avoids with its breathless evocation of the "idyllic quarry", and subtle inference of blues and folk elements in perhaps the most engaging British orchestral showpiece this decade.
The performances are as expert as one might expect from musicians with whom Hellawell has collaborated extensively over the years, with Pierre-André Valade bringing real clarity to the dense textures of the orchestral pieces. Sound is unexceptionally fine, while the composer's own annotations offer numerous intriguing pointers to his composing.Those who are yet to make its acquaintance could certainly start here."
Richard Whitehouse, The Gramophone 2008
Overseas Premiere of Litholatry (2001)
“Piers Hellawell's 'Litholatry' (worship of rocks) received a rousing Canadian premiere. Composed for a fifteen-member chamber orchestra, this ten-minute excursion into its subject is all swirling circles and colour and movement, with ideas shifting rapidly, a kind of impressionistic palette with riffs".
JH Stape, Review Vancouver
o---o---o 'Litholatry' by Piers Hellawell was altogether more attractive: perky and given to snazzy riffs sounding like Leonard Bernstein in the 21st century, 'Litholatry’ was adroitly led by guest conductor Rosemary Thomson and stylishly played by VSO members."
David Gordon Duke, Vancouver Sun
Dogs and Wolves:
City Halls, Glasgow, April 2006, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra(world premiere)
“The SSO was in mind-blowing form for Piers Hellawell’s excitingly hectic Dogs and Wolves (a first performance).”
Michael Tumelty, Herald and Times
“The giddy sequence of a newly commissioned work by Piers Hellawell, Bernstein’s ecstatic Chichester Psalms, Debussy… and Bartók… combined to form an exhaustive musical journey from the seeds of late 19th-century Impressionism to nervy tautness of Hellawell’s modern-day angst.
But if that was the initial impression of the newest work in the programme – its title, Dogs and Wolves, a translation of Sorley MacLean’s Coin is Madaidhean-Allaidh – the ugly turmoil of its frenetic opening (not always well written for the strings) soon dissipated into something more tender, expressive and occasionally beautiful. Hellawell’s writing is athletic; the textures evolve in a constant state of flux. As an entity, it grows on you. Martyn Brabbins conducted a performance that had unshakeable direction and intention. “
Ken Walton, The Scotsman
“ Into such colourful programming, Piers Hellawell’s new piece Dogs and Wolves was a nice introduction: an orchestral chase in which dancing momentum combines with Debussyan sonorities, intriguingly tinted with the distinctive colour of steel drums.”
Rowena Smith, The Guardian
Driftwood on Sand:
Cheltenham International Festival, July 2006, RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet
“Composer Piers Hellawell celebrated his 50th birthday in style, listening to a performance of his Driftwood on Sand performed by a crack string quartet from Cork.
Hellawell likened his work to a sphere, with two main chambers (or movements) which can be approached from different points. The musicians are free to choose the order in which they play the four short preludes which separate the two longer movements. The work proved to be attractive and varied, with a linear, melodic first principal movement and a more fragmented and choppy second.”
Roger Jones, Gloucestershire Echo
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, October 2004, RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet
".... Nor was this new venue for the Vanbrugh Quartet completely free from external noise. That was especially unfortunate in their astonishingly quiet playing of one of the most atmospheric portions of Hellawell's work. Entitled Driftwood on Sand, this substantial quartet consists of two principal movements surrounded by a miscellany of concise episodes whose ordering is determined by the performers. The current Vanbrugh reading - deemed definitive by the composer - begins with the most contrapuntally inventive of the episodes. The objectivity thus promised is then decisively renounced. Despite the sophisticated harmonies, artfully spaced chords and articulately metred rhythms, everything turns out to be less formal than it actually sounds, while nothing leads to a clichéd or even familiar emotion. Some might find this mildly frustrating, but it's nonetheless a musical experience that's impressively out of the ordinary."
Andrew Johnstone, The Irish Times
Cors de chasse:
South Bank Centre London, October 2006, Philharmonia Orchestra (London premiere)
“ The most wholly successful performance was of Piers Hellawell’s Cors de chasse. Hellawell (b.1956) has composed a 15-minute ‘double concerto’ that is more a ‘sinfonia concertante’. The large orchestra is kept busy and the listener is aware of recurring motifs and significant interaction between the soloists and the orchestra, not least with the brass section. If the title suggests acres of rolling countryside, then ‘hunting horns’ is more a snazzy appellation; the work is sinuous, jazzy and vibrant, and the lyrically intense episodes tend to remind of Stan Kenton (this listener, anyway!). Hellawell seems not without humour or wit; Cors de chasse. has an agreeable whimsy to it, too, and his extensive use of percussion (including wineglass and swannee whistle) always seems integrated to the overall plot. This performance (the fourth since the Brighton Festival premiere in 2004) found Håkan Hardenberger and Jonas Bylund in tiptop form and the Philharmonia wholly alive to the demonstration and decoration that Cors de chasse. memorably affords.
An impromptu element sometimes added an exciting edge to this concert; this was certainly ‘live’ and dedicated music-making – which was captured by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast this Friday.. and is worth catching for Cors de chasse. and for a fine spirit of adventure.”
Colin Anderson, The Classical Source, www.classicalsource.com
Brighton International Festival, May 2004, Philharmonia Orchestra (world premiere)
“ The Brighton Festival could hardly have got off to a more rousing start… Piers Hellawell’s Cors de chasse., a joint Philharmonia/Brighton Festival commission receiving its world premiere, is a concerto for the unlikely coupling of trumpet and trombone, rendered plausible when there are artists of the calibre of Håkan Hardenberger and Jonas Bylund to perform it.
A compact score charged with incident, it has a high energy level and some coruscating clashes leading inexorably to a ferocious denouement, but you would hardly expect a match between trumpet and trombone to be placid.”
Geoffrey Norris, The Daily Telegraph
“ A double concerto by Piers Hellawell showcased those dangerous people, Swedish brass virtuosi. The 15-minute Cors de chasse. began with frisky, curling phrases and a will-o’-the-wisp feel. Then, once the soloists entered, speeds slowed. What kind of a hunt was this? Bafflement was offset by Hellawell’s sophisticated ear for sonorities, and by the soloists’ showmanship. A dazzling paint-box of colours, acrobatic dexterity: here at last the concert offered a genuinely festival display.”
Geoff Brown, The Times
The Hilliard Songbook:
Wigmore Hall, London, May 2004, The Hilliard Ensemble 30th Anniversary Concert
“ They began with one of the most enduring of their many commissions, The Hilliard Songbook by Piers Hellawell, a setting of extracts from a treatise by the Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, alternating fine-spun melodies and densely luminous close harmonies evoking the colours Hilliard describes.”
Bayan Northcott, The Independent
Truth Or Consequences:
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, October 2000, Psappha Ensemble
“It was a good idea, on the other hand, to get Piers Hellawell to introduce his own Truth Or Consequences, a brilliantly witty piece that alludes in its title to the town in New Mexico that named itself after a popular game-show – although it was not that peculiar fact that attracted the composer so much as the abstract idea of the contrast between the immutability of truth and variability of consequences. Psappha have made a speciality of this score and seem to find more and more subtlety in colour and rhythm every time they play it. Truth Or Consequences did not suffer by being presented alongside its natural programme companion, Bartók’s Contrasts…”
Gerald Larner, The Times
BBC Promenade Concerts August 1999, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
“ There are a few composers writing music today which challenges the listener to explore, but few do so as enticingly as Hellawell. There are some wonderfully alluring sounds: rich, sensuous harmonies, folkish rhythms that dance with tantalising irregularity, pungently expressive unaccompanied solos for violin and viola. No, it isn’t all immediately accessible, but the feeling grows that Inside Story could be very enjoyable.”
Stephen Johnson, The Scotsman
“ There are plenty of notes in Piers Hellawell’s Inside Story, premiered at Tuesday’s Prom, but not a note too many. As its title suggests, everything in this double concerto for violin and viola comes from within the music itself. Not for the first time, Hellawell has written a score tinged with non-Western sounds, and the gamelan is evoked here in the score’s unceasing movement. The soloists Clio Gould and Philip Dukes played with both energy and tenderness. Their instruments are called to skate over the top at the start but become part of the orchestral fabric as the surging energy begins to build. Jazzy inflections in the first half of the 20-minute score give way to more lyrical moments: the second movement opens with a cadenza which transforms itself into a mosaic for all the strings, and rapturous melodies break out before the piece reaches its close.”
John Allison, The Times
“Inside Story is an impressive new double concerto from Piers Hellawell… There’s no hidden plot. The story is the material itself. But a concerto it was, and a very good one. Inside Story is cast in two movements. In the first the orchestra generates a growing tide of energy, all effortless, bubbling rhythm… on top of which the soloists’ ceaseless dialogue surfs ever onwards. The second movement telescopes three parts: an impassioned cadenza, a calmer passacaglia-like section of evolving episodic strength, and a coda. The marvellously inventive scoring, which requires a glittering array of percussion (including a bowl of chickpeas stirred with a chopstick) and also offers the flugelhorn a rare spot in the limelight, calls to mind the sun-dappled Mediterranean textures of Walton, with that same warm glow at the centre. And despite the busy surfaces the harmonic direction was never in doubt: the music knew where it was going and set about the journey with that rarest of qualities these days, good humour.”
Martin Anderson, The Independent
“The third BBC commission was Inside Story, a 20-minute concerto … by British composer Piers Hellawell, unveiled by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins. A two-movement work, it is built on a large-scale contrast of the motoric – vibrant, folk- and gamelan-influenced music, often played by the soloists in rhythmic unison – and the measured. The divide is marked by a subtly judged viola cadenza braking the relentless figuration and setting the meditative, lyrical mood of the second movement. Throughout the piece there are exotic touches – the tubular bell at beginning and end, the clatter of woodblocks, honk of car-horn, soothing tones of the flugelhorn – that reminded me of Tippett, notably his Triple Concerto… with its rapturous Javanese slow movement. Hellawell’s mysteriously titled concerto is just as direct in utterance, certainly when conveyed by such mettlesome soloists as these.”
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times
Music of Today Concert, Royal Festival Hall, London, October 1999, Philharmonia
“ In the first of this season’s Music of Today concerts, with members of the Philharmonia under Martyn Brabbins, James MacMillan introduced one of the rapidly rising names in contemporary music: Piers Hellawell, who was represented by two pieces from his ‘Sound Carvings’ series. The ostinatos of Sound Carvings from the Ice Wall with its constant variations of timbre, are entrancing and never outstay their welcome. Sound Carvings from the Water’s Edge, for strings only, requires knocked plates and snapped strings and is as eventful as you might expect from a piece inspired by the bleak landscape of the Hebrides.”
Barry Millington, The Times
“ A bowl of dried chickpeas, with chopsticks to go, was merely the strangest of the 33-item percussion menu listed by Piers Hellawell for his flamboyant BBC Proms commission. Fluently written for large orchestra with two soloists, Inside Story should not be thought of as a concerto, he insists, with its connotations of confrontation and showing off. Inevitably, however, our programmed ears make us hear it that way, especially when the soloists are virtuosic, the writing technically demanding and the whole concerto world is effervescently present.
The first of the work’s two movements echoes traditional sonata form, with a distinctive, jazzy-folk figure which spins off in two directions and returns. The second is episodic, characterized by a cadenza rhapsody whose delicate explosion into a dense, bustling clatter leads to a cleverly teasing conclusion. Clio Gould, violin and Philip Dukes, viola for whom the piece was written, gave well-matched, richly expressive performances, with sympathetic support from the BBC Scottish Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Hellawell (b. 1956) makes deft use of his resources, as the high, klezmer-like clarinet writing, bright flugelhorn and array of percussion demonstrate. Yet what lies beneath this abundance of ornament? A first listening was too early to say, but the mix of modal and dissonant harmonies will surely not have scared those member of a packed Albert Hall audience who had come for the Rachmaninov …”
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer
Do Not Disturb:
Barbican, London 1997, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis
“ When Piers Hellawell showed us ‘Ways Through Bracken’ at the Barbican, we could virtually feel peat underfoot, sense clouds scatter on the heels of a breeze. It was the first section of Do Not Disturb… Hellawell’s spacious orchestral canvas conjures illusions of depth and height, with the excitable pecking of wood-blocks, an off-stage trumpet, strings veering off in all directions and a pulsing harmonic pungency redolent of Martinu, Britten, even Steve Reich. Orchestral textures shimmer with startling surreality and the overall effect is of a rugged wonderland tailer-made for the jaded victims of city life. I loved it.”
Rob Cowan, The Independent
‘Inside Story’, CD on Metronome MET CD 1059:
Committed, heartfelt performances of music by an individual passionate voice
“For 15 years now, Piers Hellawell has been building a steady reputation as a musical non-conformist. The present disc features two concerto-type works from either end of the last decade, and a string quartet work that demonstrates his imaginative approach to instrumental textures to the full.
Quadruple Elegy (1990) takes as its starting point the political upheavals of 1989, and marks the outset of the blues-inflected harmonic idiom that the composer evolved over the next decade. The incisive violin figuration and melodic slides of ‘Baku’, the irregular dance measures of ‘Tiblisi’ and the rhapsodic motion of ‘Timisoara’ are concluded by the irridescent calm of a homage to Jan Palac – fallen hero of the 1968 Prague Spring – which ensures a musical focus to balance the conceptual framework. The Still Dancers (1992) draws on examples of natural phenomena in a novel approach to string quartet composition. Onomatopoeic invocations preface each of the three movements: respectively animated (with a hint of 1980s Reich), impulsive and graceful (with attractive Cage-ian percussives). The work has more recently been performed in the context of prints by Jean Duncan, which would have been good to have as a CD-ROM component on the disc. Inside Story (1999) is as much a non- as a double- concerto. Violin and viola are on equal terms with the orchestra throughout, appearing in the vivacious opening movement as linear continuities in often dense and elaborate textures. Although no extra-musical associations are at work here, the progress of the second movement from soaring recitative, through a series of increasingly diverse variations, to the excitable close suggests a programme played out in sound.
Committed performances by all concerned, a natural sound balance and detailed notes round out a well-planned overview of an engaging and still-emerging compositional talent.”
Richard Whitehouse, The Gramophone, 2002
PICK OF THE MONTH
Piers Hellawell’s musical response to nature’s rhythms makes for seductive listening
“Well, this doesn’t happen very often – at least not in the middle of a busy reviewing time-table. No sooner had I got to the end of Piers Hellawell’s Quadruple Elegy than I was reaching for the repeat button. As expected, this intensely lyrical, subtly original music revealed even more the second time around. The final movement of this violin concerto in all but name is particularly fine. Quiet harmonies progress like a slowed- down chorale, while the solo violin cuts across them with wide-spanning figures that echo one another but which never seem quite the same twice. You may sense Stravinsky in the background in all three pieces – in the complex dance-rhythms, in the dislocated melodies, in the enriched tonal harmonies – but the effect is quite different. Hellawell has none of Stravinsky’s sadistic humour or straitjacketed ‘objectivity’; instead there’s refined pathos, exhilarating song and something close to a sense of awe.
It’s no surprise to discover that Hellawell finds nature so absorbing: the booklet contains some of his haunting photographs of rock, sand and water formation. A similar delight in sensuous natural geometry can be felt in The Still Dancers, and still more in the final movement of Inside Story. It’s hard to imagine this music better played, notably by the fine string soloists Clio Gould and Philip Dukes. The recordings of the orchestral works allow us to hear plenty of detail without sacrificing atmosphere; sound in The Still Dancers is a little drier, but admirably clear.”
Stephen Johnson, BBC Music Magazine 2002
“Piers Hellawell (b.1956) has an immediately recognizable personal language and vividly fluent inventiveness. The language, he tells us, is rooted in a personal adaptation of blues harmony, but I would have said that a couple of works by Stravinsky – the Symphonies of Wind Instruments and the Three Pieces for string quartet - had a fruitful influence as well. The three works here chart the development of that language, the Quadruple Elegy dating from around the time that it matured, The Still Dancers from shortly thereafter, while Inside Story is recent. The language is toughly lyrical, perhaps owing something to a knowledge of folk music, something else to the stacked singing textures of late Tippett (think of the Triple Concerto) but more vociferous, often more energetic. In the earlier pieces, though it is hard not to be grateful for Hellawell’s apparently limitless fluency, one cannot resist the feeling that it is easier for him to invent a new and striking idea than to discuss or develop those he has invented already. But Piers Hellawell’s industrious inventiveness is a whole lot more entertaining than many other composers’ rigorous motivic economy. The Still Dancers, in particular, contains enough arresting string quartet textures and ideas to furnish another composer with material for several quartets.
In Inside Story, however, there is much more development, much more of a sense of evolving form, although the two movements are only tenuously connected. In the first, the two soloists often seem to draw other instruments or orchestral groups into their sinewy athletic lyricism and to become ‘co-soloists’. In the second – a sort of recitative and variations – a flugelhorn upstages the string soloists for a while. It is an invigorating, likeable pieces that demands immediate rehearing. Quadruple Elegy only begins and ends elegiacally; it is a series of commemorations – at times tense or protesting but always positive and vigorous – of the victims of human cruelty. It ends, appropriately as Hellawell’s source, with a richly and densely harmonized blues.
The performances are brilliant and eloquent, the recordings exemplary. Hellawell’s is an alert, engaging, absorbingly intelligent musical mind, and it is good to have such a satisfying cross-section of his music on disc.”
Michael Oliver, International Record Review 2002
‘Sound Carvings’, CD on Metronome MET CD 1029:
“Piers Hellawell’s music draws its inspiration and materials from a wide variety of sources, including folk and classical traditions. It is accessible without completely abandoning modernist complexity and astringency. The Psappha Ensemble and the Scottish Ensemble give strong, committed performances of Hellawell’s difficult and rewarding work. Metronome’s sound is very good.”
American Record Guide, 1999 (USA)
“ Piers Hellawell can stamp real individuality on the most familiar material. Central to this engrossing, extremely well-played survey of his instrumental output of the last decade is the Sound Carvings trilogy: music of vivid colours, imaginative juxtapositions and even quite prolix elaborations.”
Keith Potter, BBC Music Magazine 1998
“… Hellawell, struggling (as do all good, conscientious composers) to find his way, succeeds. A blurb on the Metronome’s tray-card bears repeating: ‘The music conjures a landscape of frozen forms.’ It’s quite true. These five pieces are cool in demeanor and emotionally quiescent, a delicate transparency their salient characteristic. Mood, however, abounds, almost all of it subdued. Hellawell’s instrumental textures and statements are those of magnified snowflakes. As to the Cringe Factor: the art music of our time ranges in terms of its target audience from ‘Cognoscenti Only Need Apply’ to ‘Airheads Welcome’ – from Luigi Nono, if you will, on down the slope. Hellawell falls at neither extreme. In terms of place, he’s not that far from the Arctic circle. Remarkably, it’s an inviting milieu owing by and large to this music’s polish and poise, nor does the composer challenge the casual listener with in-your-face rhetoric. Further, there’s just enough of a vestigial minimalist clarity to suggest an air of familiarity. Very attractive indeed, most ably performed. Handsomely recorded too.”
La Folia, 1999 (USA)
The Hilliard Songbook on ‘A Hilliard Songbook’ ECM NEW SERIES 78118-21614/5
“ Every work in this program has real strength and personality; so to single out particular pieces is a bit dangerous. Nevertheless, three stand out to my ear as particularly notable. First is Piers Hellawell’s The Hilliard Songbook, which sets texts by Nicholas Hilliard, the Elizabethan miniaturist from whom the group takes its name. These concern the nature and expressive capacities of different colours, expressed with poetic precision. Hellawell sets these with a sort of highly personal, ravishing fresh harmony that I frankly can’t describe further than the adjectives I just used - I suspect I would have to analyze the score to get closer to how they actually work. What I can say is that this is exceptionally scrupulous music, shaping each phrase and progression with subtlety, refinement and exceptional concentration on the smallest detail.”
Robert Carl, Fanfare April/May 1997
“Superimposition of text, and its attendant layering of musical material, meet a wide range of expressive ends; from Elizabeth Liddle’s strophic hymn tune supporting the Brittenesque extended tonality of the solo voice in Whale Rant] to what many may regard as the jewel of this collection, Piers Hellawell’s The Hilliard Songbook, setting portraitist Nicholas Hilliard’s descriptions of previous stones and their colours. Simple, interwoven melodic strands trace the contours of formal Elizabethan syntax in a sequence of exquisite, luminescent miniatures.”
Thomas Hall, The Musical Times February 1997
While it is customary to edit reviews, presenting only favourable highlights from notices that are often much more mixed in response when read in their entirety, it seems to me pointless to present critical comment unless it appears ‘warts and all’. The review material given in this section is left unedited of any comment that is pertinent; the only editing employed is to extract relevant passages from surrounding coverage or to remove irrelevant references for reasons of space. PH