A Xenakis Evening – London Sinfonietta (7 October)


Linda Hirst & Hilary Summers (mezzo-sopranos)

Mark van de Wiel (bass clarinet)

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

London Sinfonietta
Diego Masson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 October, 2003
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

A gratifyingly large (and youngish) audience for this first London Sinfonietta concert of the season – devoted to the music of a composer whose music is as uncompromising as it is communicative.

Five pieces, composed over a 26-year period, gave a viable overview of the major part of Iannis Xenakis’s output. Certainly Eonta (1963), in which a five-piece brass ensemble variously provokes, cajoles and finally intimidates a solo piano, has few equals for graphic musical or visual impact. A comparable, though very different intensity is to be found in N’Shima (1975) – dispersing a Hebrew text between two mezzos, then setting their exchanges against horns and trombones while a cello pulls together the archaic, ritualistic whole.

Two works from 1989 demonstrated Xenakis’s contribution to the domains of percussion writing, and for solo instrument and ensemble respectively. Okho brings the rhythmic patterns of three djembés (tuned drums prevalent in Western Africa) into incisive interplay. Échange looks forward to the often-stark harmonic writing of the composer’s final decade – here with a diaphanous quality to the ruminations of bass clarinet that brings out a subtle melodic undercurrent.

The concert ended with Thallein (1984), the second of Xenakis’s Sinfonietta commissions and a potent example of how he created palpable continuity from conflicting musical incidents. While progress from the grating opening chord to the hectic discourse later in the work might seem to be plotted with almost clinical precision, the impact of the music is demonstrably physical and, above all, emotional. Qualities perhaps to be expected from a composer whose inspiration so often reaches back into antiquity, while conveying a sensibility wholly of the continuing present.

Performances were uniformly persuasive, notably from Nicolas Hodges – elegantly aloof in the stresses of Eonta – and Mark van de Wiel in the altogether more understated demands of Échange. Two extracts from Mark Kidel’s 1991 film-portrait “Something Rich and Strange” complemented the musical rounding-out of a figure whose legacy is certain to be an influence on generations to come.

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