Maya Recordings Festival: Winterthur, Switzerland, September 23-25, 2011


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Maya Recordings Festival
Winterthur, Switzerland
September 23-25, 2011
The Maya Recordings label is unusual, if not unique, in that it releases CDs of baroque music (Bach, Biber, Telemann) alongside contemporary composition (Barry Guy) and some of the most exciting free jazz imaginable (Mats Gustafsson, Evan Parker and others). To celebrate 20 years of its existence, a three-day festival was held in Winterthur, a small city near Zurich, during which many of those who recorded for the label came together to reflect every aspect of the label's history, as well as much that was new.
That fascinating mixture of musical practices was perfectly represented on the first night with a program that brought together the written compositions of J. S. Bach and Evan Parker's improvised compositions. The concert began with Bach's Sonata in F minor, played by baroque violinist Maya Homburger and harpsichordist Malcolm Proud; Homburger demonstrated a wonderful way of leaning into the notes as if accepting the music, while everything Proud did represented a clear, egoless service to the music. This was followed by Parker playing solo soprano saxophone and, while his music made no direct reference to what had come before, it was, on its own terms, every bit as knotted and multilayered—and as absorbing and involving—as Bach's music.
Next, Proud played Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, with all of its complexity delivered with clarity and flowing eloquence. Silence followed, as it did after each of these performances, and then Parker performed another soprano solo. This time something immense occurred, with a solo of great intensity leading him to a dogged examination of phrases within the multitude of phrases he created. It was stirring, magical playing, decaying eventually towards a special kind of silence. To finish, Homburger and Proud joined together again for Bach's Sonata in C major, another compelling performance and finale to a concert which was, in every sense, about letting the music be heard. Finally the audience could clap.

The second concert of the night brought together bassist Barry Guy, saxophonist Mats Gustafson and percussionist Raymond Strid), collectively known as the Tarfala Trio. Beginning with such immediacy and urgency that it was like resuming a paused CD track, the music was already there, bursting forth with unyielding, unrelenting energy. Then, just as suddenly, it dissipated and turned to a moment of relative quiet from Guy's bass, joined by breathy tenor from Gustafsson and on to a perfect ending. Seeing Gustafsson on baritone is always enthralling; it's wonderful to watch him popping, heaving, and wavering on the cusp of letting go with a torrent of raw sound. Both Guy and Strid played with matching determination and precisely judged attention, adding exactly what the music needed at each moment of its formation.

For the opening series of concerts on the second day, the musicians present played in solo, duo and trio formation, starting with Maya Homburger playing Barry Guy's "Celebration," originally recorded for solo violin, but with percussionist Paul Lytton joining her on this occasion. A daring choice as, rather than underpinning or decorating her playing, Lytton decided, instead, to be playfully provocative, erupting at unexpected moments and confounding the music—even bowing part of his kit, as if in parody. The composition survived, but enmeshed in a lot of mischievous humor.

Homburger then performed another of Guy's compositions, "Lysandra," one of three pieces named after butterflies, which are paired on disc with Bach's Violin Sonatas and Partitas. This piece demanded a lot of the violinist, including, as it does, some very fast and intricate passages, which Homburger negotiated with vigor and unerring accuracy.

Guy and pianist Augusti Fernandez used delicate themes as the impetus for closely argued exchanges, where the melodic fragments were quickly shattered, the better to achieve the kind of quickly evolving, unpredictable changes of mood in which they both revel. This was only possible because both have such complete control of their instruments and because both listen with such attention to what the other is doing. This they demonstrated especially well as they moved from harsh, agitated playing towards the serene calm of "How to go into a room you are already in."

When Guy played in duo with Lytton, they both used a range of unconventional additions to their instruments and unorthodox techniques with which to play them. Despite having played together for many years, they still demonstrated a real joy in the childlike investigation of what-happens-if-I-do-this? Their pleasure was as much a treat to watch as it was to hear.

Together, Fernandez and Gustafsson both used their instruments to their full potential and beyond. Fernandez was often under the lid, scraping and plucking—or else using dense note clusters achieved by using his fists or arm—while Gustafsson spat and split notes before unleashing a hail of multiphonics.

The final grouping in this section of the festival brought together three percussionists—Strid, Lytton and Ramon Lopez. For much of the time they emphasized textural details, until Lopez added rhythmic elements, including some table, which produced a move towards a flurry of drumming that was worthy of the drum battles of the Swing era. There was much enjoyment to be had from watching the three of them, each puckish in their own fashion.

The trio of Parker, Guy and Lytton has been one of jazz's more outstanding groups for a very long time; despite seeing them play many times, it is always astounding—almost overwhelming—to hear them and witness the way their music is formed. The amount of detail being transmitted is probably more than can be processed by the mind, and yet it coheres, and the implications of their quicker-than-a-thought responsiveness—their cleaving and their cohesion—are always intelligible. It is endlessly absorbing music and, on this night, through all the modulations of the music—as subtle at time as it was exhilarating at others—they played, above all else, as a trio. Nor were they without humor. At the beginning of their encore Lytton sat for several seconds with a stick raised above cymbals and bowls before eventually saying, "I can't decide which one to hit."

The major baroque work performed at the festival was Bach's "The Musical Offering," played, on the third day, by Camerata Kilkenny, an ensemble which began in Ireland in 1999. Indeed, Maya Recordings has formed many links with Ireland, with recordings made there and including several Irish musicians on recordings of baroque music (Culture Ireland were thanked a couple of times for their help in staging the festival). Camerata Kilkenny included three Irish musicians: baroque violinist/violist Marja Gaynor, baroque cellist Sara McMahon and harpsichordist Malcolm Proud, along with Maya Homburger and Dutch transverse flautist Wilbert Hazelzet. Together, they played with such relish and commitment to the music that it sounded as fresh and new as any of the other music heard during the festival. The composition is of particular interest because it features so many forms of composition and combinations of instruments—including two ricercars for harpsichord, canons for several instrumental groupings, a brief fugue and a beautiful sonata for flute, violin, cello and harpsichord. A glorious composition, magnificently played.

When Augusti Fernandez, Barry Guy and Ramon Lopez play together, the direction their music will take is entirely unpredictable. Their concert began with Fernandez playing a languid, lyrical theme, but when Guy and Lopez joined him the music assumed a very different character, moving into abstract, splintered terrain before resolving around a restating of the theme, which the pianist then toyed with, encouraged and supported by the other two players. To begin another piece Guy played some sublime arco bass, ripe with delicious overtones, before Lopez added the sharp twack of tabla and drums, with Fernandez then joining in another yearning melody, after which they again moved onto open ground where everything was possible. Only for their encore did they both begin and remain within a lyrical mode. That, too, was carefully judged and convincingly sustained.

To bring the festival to an end, Homburger and all of the improvisers Homburger came together to perform Guy's "Amphi." The highly unusual gathering of baroque violin, bass, piano, two reeds players and three percussionists seemed likely to incur problems of balance; the violin, however, was carefully and successfully integrated into this combination of instruments, with Homburger opening the seven-part suite before a tutti passage which led to solos by Parker and Lopez, followed by the violinist playing another scored passage. The music continued to move around and between all of the musicians—in combination and solo—with improvisational space for all. Homburger, too, had to improvise, and did so especially well in tandem with Gustafsson's fluteophone and Guy's prepared bass. Homburger proved quite deft at moving between the written and the improvised, something classically trained musicians often find especially difficult to do.

With that, the festival ended, having effectively demonstrated how well musical forms with different histories and contrasting performance practices can be mixed to the enrichment of both.

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