BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
A K Gruber, conductor
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Work had already begun on this piece- which promised to be very much in the Nordic tradition of Sibelius's tone-poems, always objects of awe and admiration for me - when my wife and I took a brief holiday cruise round the North Atlantic, calling in at Reykjavik among other fascinating places.It was here that I had one of two experiences that helped to focus my thoughts about the piece more precisely. We were on a visit to the city's extraordinary new power station, which doubles as something of a science museum. You could sample here a recording of the subterranean rumblings which had been detected by a seismograph, making us terrifyingly aware of natural forces beyond our control. The bass drum impersonates this sound from time to lime and casts a shadow over the whole work.
During this period I also saw the impressive movie Far North, shot on location in the Arctic,in which one particular spellbinding shot seemed to encapsulate visually something of the feeling that lay behind the textural colourings I had imagined for my piece. The vanaus shades of slate grey that characterised the cliffs, tundra and sea in the foreground and middle ground took the eye far back to where ice cops formed a dazzling silver thread across the distant horizon,lit by sunshine from beyond the edge of the world. If anything of these experiences can be felt in the piece, I will not have failed entirely.
The overall structure is comparatively simple. There are six sections within an unbroken span. After a bellowing trombone, which warns of things to come, the first section unfolds quietly, with drifting harmonies underpinning scraps of woodwind melody. Suddenly, the opening warning returns and explodes in a series of brass-led eruptions to form the second section. This is followed by a fleet-footed scherzo that rarely rises above pianissimo, a chilling dance among the gossamer of ice caves.
The fourth section brings back the opening material in brooder focus and develops into climactic statements, leading ultimately to the fifth section, a massive reappearance of the second section's explosions. The work closes with a string threnody that evolves from by now familiar harmonies. References to the scherzo are woven into the texture, as are memories of the bass drum's seismic activity.
The title reminds us that,as far back as late Tudor and Jacobean limes, there was an awareness of the mysteries and fearful wonders of the Far North. Thomas Weelkes's famous madrigal 'Thule, the Period of Cosmographie' could perhaps be roughly translated as 'Iceland, the edge of the known world'.
Programme note © Anthony Payne