Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Modernism’s back, baby: Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival reviewed

Did I sense a renewed thirst for modernism at this year's HCMF? The glimmer of a revival of art for art’s sake even?

Conducting the Ensemble Musikfabrik at HCMF, Enno Poppe looked like a marionette that wasn’t quite yet under the control of its puppeteer. Image: Brian Slater

It’s not everyone’s idea of fun, a trip to Huddersfield in the depths of November. But as any veteran of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival knows, it usually pays off. Sure, none of the venues has a bar; the programming is as carefully curated as a b2b trade show, the main hall about as cosy as a care home. And true, calling all this a ‘festival’ sometimes feels like wishful thinking. And yes, you are in Huddersfield. (In November.) But HCMF remains one of the few places in this country where you can get a high-quality hit of musical modernism — and always freshly served piping hot straight from the continent’s finest compositional kitchens.

One of the most satisfying pay-offs this year came from the indispensable Ensemble Musikfabrik, who’d lugged over two monumentally ambitious slabs of pure abstraction. This in itself felt startling. Here was art, would you believe, that refused to ‘speak to our moment’, that failed to address a single urgent issue, that had nothing discernible to say about gender, race or climate change. It was almost as if there were a belief that the music, as music, could itself have something valuable and profound to say.

Startling, too, was the form of Enno Poppe’s 50-minute new work Prozession. In an age where the favoured posture of most new compositions is a slouched mooch, what was this strange new vibe? Momentum?! Driving energy? The piece had the inevitability of a chain reaction — or a Mahler symphony. Welcome back, teleology, old friend!

Here was art, would you believe, that refused to ‘speak to our moment’, that failed to address a single urgent issue

Poppe kicks things off in a dramatic thicket of wood blocks, thrummed bongos and brushed drums — almost Noh play-like — the four percussionists surrounding the other musicians, primed to pounce.

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