for cello and chamber orchestra

Richard Birchall

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for cello and chamber orchestra

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Composer Richard Birchall

Year of Composition


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ca. 16'

Categories (all composers) ,
Catalogue ID ce-rb3l1


The underlying concept of Labyrinth is a comparison drawn between the vying of a soloist with the orchestra (inherent in any concerto-esque work) and an imagined journey to and from the centre of a labyrinthine maze, with all the struggles and elations of such a journey; the movements representing In, Middle, and Out. The work overall is on a relatively compact scale, with a duration of 16 minutes and calling on chamber orchestra forces: a string section with four solo wind players and two horns.

The musical material of the first movement, Spiral, is dominated by two forms of inward motion. The very opening of the piece demonstrates repeated intervallic squeezing, initially from perfect fifths to perfect fourths; the first cadenza-like entry of the solo cello fixates on a spiralling melodic motif in the form of a symmetrical quintuplet. These two inward-leaning elements combine to give rise to the main theme of the movement, presented by the soloist immediately following the opening cadenza flourish. The movement is in three parts: the mysterious lilting feel of the start gives way to an agitated moto perpetuo, where an extract from the main theme is used as a persistent eight-note quaver unit; at the climactic point the theme in full returns at the original tempo, and the music gradually collapses in on itself to leave a single held G.

The solo cello carries forward the thread of this isolated note, embarking on an extended cadenza, Epicentre. Two distinct whole-tone scales (one upward, one downward) contrast with continual pedal-points in left hand pizzicato; stronger rhythmic elements are introduced, and previously heard material is eventually uncovered in an exploratory way. The music gradually gains momentum through this solo movement, the orchestra subtly rejoining the texture before linking directly into the finale. Tangle, perhaps the most programmatic of the movements, evokes the stresses, confusion and thrill of escape from the maze. Written in 12/8 time, the music flits between fast waltz and heavy tarantella with a febrile intensity. Through many twists and turns, the movement swells to an unmistakably positive conclusion.

Labyrinth was written for Timothy Walden, and premiered in London in January 2016.

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