London Sinfonietta – 2 February

Hans Werner Henze
Trauer-Ode fur Margaret Geddes (1997) [UK premiere]
Mark-Anthony Turnage
Dark Crossing (2001) [UK premiere]
Robert Zuidam
McGonagall-Lieder (1997-2001) [UK premiere of complete work]

Lucy Shelton (soprano)
Rolf Hind & Nicolas Hodges (pianos)
London Sinfonietta conducted by Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 2 February, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Not even the allure of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Morton Feldman retrospective in the Barbican could dissuade a substantial audience from braving the South Bank for three UK premières.

With Oliver Knussen and the (absent) Hans Werner Henze as presiding spirits and providers of creative connections, first on was the modest, 10-minute piece composed by Henze as a memorial tribute to his (and Britten’s) friend and patron, Margaret Geddes, turned Princess Margaret of Hesse and the Rhine. The music, scored for six cellos, has at its core a Bach chorale, an archetype of pain and loss distorted by Henze’s own melancholy commentary. This returns to fade out the piece effectively enough, but something was lacking. Knussen characteristically insisted on an encore and the second performance was both more engaged and better tuned, bringing out the emotive quality of the invention quite as much as its formal assurance.

Recently marketed as “British music’s brightest star”, Mark-Anthony Turnage provided the main event with Dark Crossing, a sequence of three études (Three Inventions already taken by George Benjamin). The most purely abstract music he has composed for some time, it is also a mainly jazz-free zone, although the idiom, which betrays the liberating influence of jazz with every penetrating wind solo, is immediately identifiable as Turnage’s own. Indeed this is perhaps its crucial achievement when, for so many composers, the acquisition of a unified and personal voice is no longer top priority.

Dark Crossing bucks that trend, even while seeming to allude to others. Is that Debussy’s La Mer in its opening movement? There’s a saxophone – and a scherzo-like utterance – at its heart, as there is in Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem; for all that Turnage’s fast music is more transatlantic in origin. Dark Crossing ends with a gentler movement that reaches back to his first published work, Night Dances, again embracing tropes unashamedly twinkling and Knussen-like. That final panel is as lucid as the rest but brings no cathartic resolution. Indeed, if the piece surprises at all, it is on account of its formality and restraint, a pocket chamber-symphony with little to frighten the horses; and absolute stylistic consistency maintained over twenty minutes.

“Olly’s brilliant teaching” is something Turnage remembers with enormous respect and gratitude as was clear from his pre-concert talk. His first opera, Greek, was also famously commissioned by Henze, with whom he remains close. The Dutch composer, Robert Zuidam, born in 1964, has links with both men too, having encountered Knussen at Tanglewood along with such wacky spirits as Lukas Foss. Both no doubt advised him to go his own way. He has done so here with a vengeance in an hour-long extravaganza mysteriously scored for coloratura soprano, percussion, four cellos, one double bass and two pianos.

For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, William McGonagall (1825-1902) was an Edinburgh-based writer of topical verse whose naïve doggerel continues to entertain today. Spike Milligan counts himself a fan and the joke arises from the poet’s earnest attempts to convey significance with limited means: he is under the illusion that every line ought to end with a rhyme and hence nothing scans properly.

The obvious musical equivalent might be an obsession with the perfect cadence, but there is nothing obvious about Zuidam’s McGonagall-Lieder. The performance as such was as conscientious as you might expect with Lucy Shelton coping admirably with the stratospheric writing and gamely opting for Victorian dress. Yet even if Zuidam’s invention was intended to be as seriously silly as McGonagall’s own, this was a sadly debilitating event: the word setting ensured that the text was largely inaudible and it was in any case impossible to find a consistent conceptual or musical thread to latch on to. I had assumed that the tension created between a serious setting and an (albeit unintentional) ’nonsense’ text would generate its own interest, but the relationship was not so clear cut.

Of the four sections, two were purely instrumental, with long stretches of quasi-minimalist, boogie-woogie vamp-till-ready from the expert (and wasted) pianists, and much portentous, grandiloquent gesturing. The settings themselves revealed a post-modern disdain for consistency, taking in onomatopoeic evocations of moving trains, whispered vocalisations sign-posting distress, an excursion into music-theatre with table tennis balls representing the deceased, a Victorian hymn tune and – inexplicably – a tango.

As a quasi-po-faced commentary on inconsequential texts, it might have worked at a quarter of the length but I doubt it. The second section, ’Address to the New Tay Bridge’, predates the rest and had already been given by the same forces. The fourth, ’The Tay Bridge Disaster’, is new. And, given the dangers involved in contemporary rail travel, the subject matter and its treatment may even have raised a few hackles.

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