Take my advice – buy Hammerings, take it home and grab a good set of headphones. Alan Holley’s music, while often theatrical, also exists in the realm of pure sound (‘pure music’, Alan calls it in the excellent liner notes) and the beautifully captured recordings on this disc are deserving of the listener’s undivided attention. Listen closely and you’ll hear the musicians’ fingers clacking across their instruments’ keys and strings.
Hammerings is a collection of Alan’s compositions for solo instruments (and one duo), taking its name from a suite of three Berio-inspired pieces written over the course of nearly ten years, Hammerings I, II and III – for solo flute, oboe and soprano saxophone respectively. These three intense but deceptively tuneful works are the disc’s centrepieces, and they push the three musicians playing them (Snjezana Pavicevic, flute; Shefali Pryor, oboe; James Nightingale, soprano sax) to exhaustion in the best way possible. Displaying nothing less than miraculous control over their instruments, the performers hammer away at their keys and at certain accented notes, many of which lie at the upper limit of their ranges. Pavicevic’s bell-like flute blasts are crystal clear but so intense that her flute sounds as though it may melt at any moment from the sheer speed of the air hurtling through it. Pryor’s oboe tone veers from velvety to crisp and chirrupy, and she brings a consummate sense of melodic line to Alan’s buoyant writing. James Nightingale, meanwhile, puts the full tonal range of the soprano sax on display in Hammerings III, culminating one of the highest tones this reviewer has ever heard a woodwind instrument produce.
Other highlights on the disc include the programmatic King St for solo alto sax, inspired by Newtown’s famously Bohemian main strip, performed with baroque panache by James Nightingale. In Alan’s thrilling Water Pieces, for solo piano, Tamara Jurkic Sviben pummels the instrument with such ferocity it’s a wonder strings weren’t broken mid-take. Take Flight is the set’s most recently-composed work and its only duo. Violinist Stan Kornel and cellist Christopher Pidcock engage in flurries of heated discussion and land softly on rich minor sixth chords in this composition, which I was lucky enough to see performed at Alan’s sixtieth birthday celebration last year.
This is truly music to lose yourself in. Close your eyes and you can almost see the musicians playing their hearts out.