London Contemporary Orchestra

Le Sacrifice
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.43
Emily Hall
Put Flesh On! [LCO commission: World premiere]
Popcorn Superhet Receiver
Les Offrandes Oubliées

Andrew O’Brien (tenor) & Nicholas Ireson (horn)

Oliver Coates (cello) & Sound Intermedia

London Contemporary Orchestra
Hugh Brunt

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 October, 2008
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

This last concert in the London Contemporary Orchestra’s first season featured a wide-ranging programme including one premiere and two little-heard works from early in their composer’s careers.

Xenakis’s Le Sacrifice (1953) only became available for performance after his death in 2001. Originallythe second part of a triptych entitled Anastènaria, it was put aside after the final part, Metastasis, had launched Xenakis’s composing career in 1955. Uncharacteristic Le Sacrifice may be in comparison, yet its fragmentary textures and microtonal inflections already confirm the Greek-born composer was to be no mere imitator of the European avant-garde. Hugh Brunt secured a committed response from the LCO; the music’s static and dynamic elements fusing to potent effect in the final stages.

Hard to believe that only a decade separates this piece from Britten’s “Serenade” (1943) – the song-cycle assembled while the composer was putting together his opera “Peter Grimes”, and which remains among his most enduring works. Although a last-minute replacement, Andrew O’Brien was clearly no stranger to the piece – his mellifluous tone happily not given to the over-characterisation that has affected many performances in recent years, while bringing a suitably sombre response to the Blake setting of ‘Elegy’ and deathly pallor to the cantus firmus that runs through the anonymous ‘Dirge’. Although not without flaw, Nicholas Ireson’s horn-playing was confidently projected – as in the unaccompanied ‘Prologue’ and ‘Epilogue’ – lacked nothing in ruminative intensity. Brunt might haveadopted slightly quicker tempos in several songs, but his interpretative focus was rarely in doubt; not least the sustained radiance in the Keats setting of ‘Sonnet’ with which the vocal sequence closes.

The second half began with a first outing for Emily Hall’s Put Flesh On! (2008). This arresting piece combined a recording of the Reverend Audrey Branson (of the Church of the Open Door, Philadelphia) in full flight along with its resourceful electronic transformation; together with a glowering undertow of Hammond organ, these then became components of a diverse ensemble with cello as ‘first among equals’. The outcome was a powerful if claustrophobic 12 minutes – Oliver Coates coping ably with a demanding concertante role – with (given the starting-point) absolutely no overtones of Steve Reich.

Quite a contrast with the study for string orchestra which followed. Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver (2005) was inspired by his memories of childhood car journeys, with the imagined sound of a limited selection of cassettes merging from the noise of the engine so the two became as one in the mind’s ear. A substantial piece in three main sections, it builds through a juxtaposition of ‘white noise’ and chorale-like harmony (the first redolent of the texture music in early Penderecki, with the central episode employing pizzicato and col legno techniques to ominous effect). The final section rather suggests Xenakis in its volatile dynamics and ‘wide angle’ glissandos, before a sustained emotional apex. Although the piece outstayed its welcome on this occasion, the quality of the LCO’s response was such as to make one curious as to Greenwood’s next move in the orchestral domain.

Nor could it be faulted in the last work. Les Offrandes Oubliées (1931) was Messiaen’s first publicly performed orchestral piece and, though already typical in its religious preoccupations, is far from characteristic in musical terms. Yet here the Debussy-inspired modality of the opening ‘Trés lent’ had real plangency, the Honegger-related fury of the central ‘Vif’ exploded with energy, and the more personal expression of the final ‘Extrêment lent’ had a sustained ecstasy that arose naturally from what preceded it – lending an overall coherence to the work such as it does not necessarily possess.

A fine end to an absorbing evening and confirmation of the standard that the London Contemporary Orchestra has consistently achieved. On this basis, the second season can only be keenly awaited.

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