London Sinfonietta – Beat Furrer In Portrait

Xenos [UK premiere]
Words [World premiere]
Nuun [UK premiere]

Michael Cox (flute) & John Constable (piano)

Omar Ebrahim (baritone) [Words]

Rolf Hind & Zubin Kanga (pianos) [Nuun]

Members of Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble
London Sinfonietta
Beat Furrer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 January, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Swiss-born and resident in Austria for the greater part of his career, Beat Furrer (born 1954) is one of numerous composers (though he is recognised equally as pianist and conductor, having founded the Vienna-based ensemble Klangforum Wien a quarter-century ago) whose profile in Western Europe is scarcely matched by that in the UK. It was timely, then, for the London Sinfonietta to devote most of a concert to his music, taking in the chamber and orchestral side of an extensive output that runs the gamut of media (much of it now recorded, notably through the enterprising Kairos label).

Each of the three works heard at this concert pursued a broadly similar trajectory from continuous and even mechanistic repetition to a more controlled and relatively humanized discourse. A traversal heard at its most economical in Presto (1997), where flute and piano echo and anticipate each other through their increasingly focussed exchanges – the process (ironically?) becoming more intelligible as it grew sparser and more fragmentary. Complex in detail yet direct in follow-through, the piece provided a template for what followed, and received a committed account from Michael Cox and John Constable.

Although similar in outward conception, Xenos (2008) is notable for its much more elaborate texture – in part a consequence of Furrer having worked on the piece while in Istanbul, where the interplay of cultures and the richness of Ottoman art audibly influenced the outcome. Even here, a unison melody threads it way through the whole such that it acts as an oblique cantus firmus – linking the seemingly disparate incidents which range from the violent oscillation (akin to a scream) at the beginning to the methodical yet atmospheric layering of bass flute, contrabass clarinet and double bass near the end.

Much the largest scale piece, Nuun (1996) takes its title from the mythical goddess Nu who was able to halt time, and whose presence is denoted by the music’s long-term transformation from relatively undifferentiated noise to the tensile stratification of harmony and rhythm; a journey embodied in the role of the two pianos, whose concertante function is as active as it is ambivalent, and to which Rolf Hind and Zubin Kanga brought an incisiveness of response as well as a variety of tonal shading that corresponded with that of the unusually demonstrative (for Furrer) yet translucent orchestration.

Throughout the performances, the composer proved adept and attentive in his direction – whether in his own music or in that of Naomi Pinnock, whose “Words” (2010) opened the second half. With its title taken from Sylvia Plath and to a continuous line of text provided by the composer, the piece created an evocative landscape of vague and half-recalled gestures – its three sections placing one of angry ejaculations between those in which voice and instruments pursue an austere and often disconnected dialogue. Omar Ebrahim was in his element here, and the work confirmed Pinnock as a name to watch.

Hopefully the new piece will soon appear on the Sinfonietta’s own label or, if not, the Music Streams service (launched in December) that enables listeners to access performances online. Those keen to investigate the music of Beat Furrer further should try either the imposing Third String Quartet or a DVD selection of his theatrical projects (both Kairos). It should be noted that this concert was gratifyingly well attended, and with a sizable number of younger audience members. After the recent exposure accorded Helmut Lachenmann, Beat Furrer might just be the next ‘big thing’ on the new-music scene.

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