Making music with meaning
inskaya, was premiered at the Proms in 1989 and led directly to MacMillan commissioning The Judas Tree – “My jaw absolutely hit the floor,” Elias remembers.
While the Ratushinskaya Songs and The Judas Tree dealt with harrowing emotions, Elias’s use of Jewish ideas has been altogether gentler. Besides L’Eylah, he wrote a piece for the unlikely mix of soprano and hurdy-gurdy based on The Song of Solomon, and in 2004, A Talisman, a setting of Hebrew texts for bass-baritone and chamber orchestra. “Among my mother’s things after she died I found a talisman, an Iraqi Jewish mid-19th-century piece of silver full of inscriptions,” he says. “I was intrigued and wanted to find out more.” A professor from Jerusalem University helped to identify its content, which included quotations from the Psalms, mysterious Kabbalistic phrases and the beginning of the First Book of Moses. This work is on the new NMC release.
Usually, though, Elias’s music is abstract. “I’ve always written very organically,” he says, “and very instinctually. My need to communicate is greater than my need to push instrumentalists to extremes, so I only use extended techniques if it’s necessary for expressive purposes.” The pared-down purity of approach is perhaps reflected in the fact that when Nicholas Daniel asked for an oboe quintet, Elias suggested a quartet instead, “because what on earth do you do with the second violin?”
The result — a quintet after all — has delighted the oboist. “Brian’s work is beautifully wrought,” Daniel says. “The arguments he makes inside the piece are fierce and intellectual, yet it’s pure music with no stated narrative. It has a particularly strong line, while retaining a beautiful ear for colour. I’m especially proud to play it as Brian only writes about one work a year. I consider him one of British music’s greatest treasures.” One work was for soprano and hurdygurdy
Brian Elias’s Oboe Quintet is at the Wigmore Hall on
19 April at
1pm. Box office: 020