London Sinfonietta at Aldeburgh Festival [Boulez, Eötvös, Stroppa]

Schiller: energische Schönheit [UK premiere]
From Needle’s Eye [UK premiere]


Byron Fulcher (trombone)

London Sinfonietta
Peter Eötvös

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 25 June, 2011
Venue: Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Peter Eötvös. © Jean-Francois LeclercqOne of the inspiring aspects of the Aldeburgh Festival is the way the vast range of programming is matched to different venues. After the extraordinary experience of hearing the 15th-century Requiem Mass by Jean de Ockeghem sung by Ensemble Organum in the setting of Blythburgh’s mediaeval church, the contrast with the new Britten Studio at Snape and an evening dominated by the music of Pierre Boulez could hardly have been starker.

The London Sinfonietta’s performance of Boulez’s ‘…explosante-fixe…’ was mesmerising. Michael Cox led the trio of flautists who are simultaneously at the centre of the double semi-circle of instrumentalists and the prime focus of the score. With the flutes’ sound moderated by electronic means, what emerges from the loudspeakers on either side of the performers constitutes a further element of the musical fabric; it is tantalising for being audibly a part of the texture, yet clearly not emanating from under the flautists’ fingers and blowing or from the ensemble itself. Perhaps the most beguiling aspect of this vibrant soundscape is the sense of constant flux, and of an infinite complexity in which every facet of sound has a shimmering individuality while yet contributing to the whole aural impression. Dimming of the lights highlighted the ends of the main sections – ‘Transitoire VII and V’ – and the transition sections – ‘Interstitiels 1 & 2’ – featuring electronic timbre alone. The final section – ‘Originel’ – proved the most compelling, its more reflective nature carrying an altogether heightened quality of utterance in the wake of such hyperactive vibrancy, and with the principal flute emerging with a reinforced sense of its centrality in the musical argument. At the end of the evening, ‘…explosante-fixe…’ was performed a second time, even more fluent and forceful this time around. It was rapturously received, with a mischievous voice shouting “encore”.

Between the two renditions of the Boulez, in which the Sinfonietta was diligently conducted by Peter Eötvös, came two UK premieres by composers associated with Boulez’s IRCAM. (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique). Eötvös’s own setting of Schiller – Schiller: energische Schönheit – was one. It featured the eight voices of Exaudi, ranged behind the Sinfonietta players, each with sleigh-bells on their music stands for jangling at requisite moments. The singers fired out Schiller’s words with brilliant clarity, but the piece was perplexing for being quite a brutal evocation of a text ostensibly chosen for its hymning of beauty. While on paper it looked as if it might have been conceived as a contemporary smaller-scale parallel to Beethoven’s ‘Choral Symphony’ and his setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, the reality was other, interesting for its painstaking disposition of particular sound-effects to voices and instruments but not particularly satisfying as a musical entity.

Marco Stroppa’s From Needle’s Eye takes its title from the eleventh poem of W. B. Yeat’s sequence of Supernatural Songs and its opening two lines: “All the stream that’s roaring by / Came out of a needle’s eye.” A trombone concerto in all but name, it explores every possible quality of sound to which that instrument might aspire, brilliantly realised by Byron Fulcher. This was rather easier on the ear than the Eötvös, with individual sounds all highly intriguing as electronic intervention extended and altered both possibilities and perceptions. Yet, for all the philosophical implication of the title and the sense of wonder invoked, ultimately one was left with the sense of having only been involved on a superficial level rather than any deeper engagement.

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