Semi-tonal: Petr Bakla, Bekah Simms

Sunday 21 May 2023

The curiously named Late Night Show collects three piano-oriented pieces by Czech composer Petr Bakla. I’ve heard one piece by him before, the orchestral There is an island above the city which I described as “pursuing the more sinister implications of settling down in one place”. The principle applies here too, with each piece taking an idée fixe and drawing elaborating details from it through increasingly close examination rather than through extension; deduction instead of induction, as it were. The pianist Miroslav Beinhauer is the soloist in all three works and his supple playing gives each piece an insidious warmth that draws the listener in to music that could sound obsessive and alienating in harder hands. Bakla’s writing and arrangements help immensely to create this sound, of course; the pair’s skills are demonstrated most overtly in the closing piece, No. 4 for solo piano, which in the second half unexpectedly opens out into florid runs of notes layered with expressive chords, producing a rewarding complexity that feels like a discovery for composer, pianist and listener alike.

This relaxation of musical strictures may be down to the piece being Bakla’s oldest composition on the album, from 2013. The most recent is his very unconventional Piano Concerto No. 2, written in 2021. Miroslav Beinhauer is accompanied by eight members of Brno Contemporary Orchestra, with Pavel Šnajdr conducting. Beinhauer reiterates an ambiguous, rising scale (shades of Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet) set against hocketing low winds, brass and strings that come and go, transforming the stillness into a pulsating, shimmering surface of dark facets which occasionally catch a flash of light. Major Thirds from 2016 is in fact for piano and string quartet and may be the most striking work here, with Beinhauer and the Brno soloists dwelling on an arpeggio that rises and falls without any significant release until any consideration of pitch is irrelevant other than as a vehicle for other musical attributes to establish themselves as the subject. At times the strings slide in pitch, combining with the piano to create complex tones and multiples, at others they provide staggered layers of accompaniment, divided into pairs with one duo playing so softly as to sound like an electronic reverberation of the other.

The blurb to Bakla’s album describes him as working with sounds more than notes, and this could also apply to the Newfoundland composer Bekah Simms, whose style is a type of splintered, or blasted, expressionism using technique to dramatic effect (cf. Lim Barrett Saunders Romitelli). Bestiaries is a brief survey of three ensemble pieces from 2019-20. The performers here – Cryptid Ensemble and Ensemble contemporain de Montréal – keep the energy levels high throughout while still holding the structure tight so the driving force of Simms’ writing never stagnates into pure indulgences of timbre. Foreverdark has amplified cellist Amahl Arulanandam suitably grinding and groaning against an electronically-enhanced ensemble, while Bestiary I & II puts soprano Charlotte Mundy behind the mic with a similar setup. While keeping to the same atmosphere, the vocal work takes a slightly gentler approach and avoids the temptation of strained histrionics, a surprising achievement in itsef. A work for smaller chamber ensemble, from Void maintains the haunted gothicky sound and disturbing noises without the aid of electronics.