Andriessen
Very Sharp Trumpet Sonata
Wuorinen
Fifty Fifty
Goehr
only two notes for olly (the other five for later)
Glanert
Dancing Landscape
Carter
Au Quai
Henze
Olly on the Shore
Thomas
Light the First Light of Evening
Zuidam
I suppose a Fugue is out of the Question
Colin Matthews
Flourish, with fireflies
Anderson
Quasi una Passacaglia
Turnage
Snapshots
Benjamin
Olicantus
Lindberg
Bubo bubo
Rolf Hind & Nicolas Hodges (pianos)

London Sinfonietta
George Benjamin

Recorded on 12 June 2002 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
CD No: SINF CD1-2004
Duration: 42 minutes
Reviewed: July 2004
Only the curmudgeonliest modern-music heckler would deny the standing of Oliver Knussen as a genuinely treasured and revered figure at the very heart of British and international musical life. It is hard to overestimate the benign influence that he has had on the shape and state of musical composition over the last 30 years, whether as a great composer in his own right (it is surely time to say that unequivocally) or as an indefatigable champion of the work of myriad other living composers, both as conductor and mentor.
Little wonder that when the London Sinfonietta asked for contributions for a 50th-birthday tribute concert in London in June 2002 (at the end of Knussen’s five-year music directorship of that ensemble), composers from around the globe were queuing up to be included.
The concert was recorded and broadcast by the BBC and the tribute-commissions are now released as a flourish to inaugurate the London Sinfonietta’s CD label, undoubtedly a long-overdue development of the Sinfonietta’s highly successful outreach programme which promises first recordings of many significant works from its repertoire.
The disc takes its title from Mark-Anthony Turnage’s contribution and does indeed provide a selective but wide-ranging picture of the London Sinfonietta purview, what one might hesitatingly call mainstream contemporary classical music. The works themselves divide roughly equally between full ensemble and solos and duos. In the nature of the project, masterpieces were always going to be unlikely (although to my mind at least one piece comes close) but given the pedigree of the contributors there are no doodles either. Knussen’s own music is at once tantalisingly absent from proceedings yet at the same time omnipresent.
Several composers produced something approaching affectionate pastiche of the Knussen house-style, occasionally incorporating direct quotation. Thus, Colin Matthews’s Flourish, with fireflies expertly invokes Knussen’s trademark hyperactivity on the surface welded to slow-moving harmonic development underneath. A luminous chorale (another trademark) finally issues into the ‘big chord’ from Knussen’s Third Symphony.
Two undivulged quotes (although one is fairly obviously the Mussorgsky material from “Where the Wild Things are” also form the lynchpin of Magnus Lindberg’s Bubo bubo, a vibrant and celebratory riot of a piece which provides a fitting end to the disc. Julian Anderson on the other hand bases his piano piece Quasi una Passacaglia not so much on the dedicatee’s soundworld but on a typical Knussen stratagem, a simple theme subjected to increasingly complex processes. Its elusive language is poised at in no-man’s-land between the tonal and the non-tonal.
Other composers offer something close to affectionate pastiche of their own style. Charles Wuorinen’s Fifty Fifty for two pianos is a birthday-cake slice of this composer’s muscular and combative post-serial language which ends as promised with a bang (followed by a tiny snippet of authentic new-music audience-reaction). Henze’s Olly on the Shore is a distillation of his characteristically knotted piano writing, while Goehr’s only two notes for olly (the other five for later) for ensemble yields a stimulating discourse out of a typically hair-shirt premise. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s eponymous piece is built on two bars from his recent Scorched; characteristic gestures fashioned into an uncharacteristically upbeat statement (even grumpy composers cheer up for Olly!).
The indisputable diadem of the contributors, Elliott Carter added another tiny jewel to his crown with Au Quai, probably the world’s first duo for viola and bassoon (the connection perhaps being their reputation as the Skodas of their respective orchestral sections?). This is three minutes of music bristling with Carter’s customary intelligence and wit.
Both Detlev Glanert and Robert Zuidam (the latter a composer much promoted by Knussen) delivered piano music full of allusion and illusion – I am of course trying to avoid saying ‘post-modern’. Louis Andriessen’s Very Sharp Trumpet Sonata for solo trumpet (dispatched here with wonderful control by Bruce Nockles) compresses the three-movement sonata model into a few seconds over one minute: I am happy to report that it succeeds in this aim.
I have saved my two favourite pieces until last. George Benjamin should surely do something to develop his Olicantus, as it first defines then exploits a unique soundworld, an exquisite study in Brahmsian autumnal brown flecked with gold. Even more striking is Light the First Light of Evening by Augusta Read Thomas, which she modestly describes as emulating the effect of striking a succession of matches. The tremulous, elevated style of the writing achieves such a numinous level that for me lifted it into the realm of the mythic – it brought to mind strongly the image of the lighting of the beacons in “The Return of the King”. Necessarily it is a subjective reaction, but I have been haunted by this music. (I may add that a plumber was working in an adjacent room when I was listening and it appeared that this piece stopped his otherwise continuous whistling for its entire duration. Make of that what you will!)
The CD’s running time is admittedly short but that is of course dictated by the circumstances. It almost goes without saying that the performances are outstanding in every respect – committed, enthusiastic, virtuoso. The recording is wonderfully natural and vivid and the whole disc is a perfect launch for the Sinfonietta’s new label, which I hope will find ways to propagate recordings that bypass the wretched distribution of most new-music labels. Knussen has said that he prefers to be bewitched for a few minutes than hypnotised for an hour. Bewitching indeed are the sounds herein. I hope they reach many ears.

 

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