London Sinfonietta/Eötvös

Oiseaux exotiques
Paraphrase (Densités II) [World premiere]
Snatches of a Conversation
Triangel [UK premiere]

Paul Crossley (piano)

Omar Ebrahim (speaker) & Marco Blaauw (trumpet)

David Hockings (percussion)

Sound Intermedia

London Sinfonietta
Peter Eötvös

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 February, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

A conductor of international standing for a quarter-century, Peter Eötvös has emerged over the last decade as among the most significant composers of his generation; his catalogue including several full-length operas greeted with acclaim and controversy in Western Europe but that – inevitably, it seems – remain unheard in the UK. This concert saw him at the helm of the London Sinfonietta for one of their periodic collaborations that are always a pleasure in the programming and execution.

The present offering began with Oiseaux exotiques (1956) – Messiaen’s vivid integration of a diverse range of birdsong into an intensifying sequence of piano solos and ensemble passages, and the most approachable of the scores from his ‘experimental’ years (roughly 1948-63). Paul Crossley made his reputation as a Messiaen exponent at the outset of his career, and his partnership with Eötvös lacked nothing in co-ordination and precision, though a tendency to narrow the dynamic range and expressive nuances of the piano writing was at times evident. This was a persuasive performance, even so, and deserving of a more enthusiastic reception than the desultory one that ensued. Surely so important a work has not been heard in London so often for its manifest qualities now to be taken for granted?

No such familiarity could be levelled at Pedro Amaral (born 1972) – the 23-year-old Portuguese composer. Paraphrase (2005) is subtitled ‘Densités II’, and the relationship of this new piece to its predecessor was considered at some length by Amaral in his programme note. Suffice to say the ‘paraphrasing’ takes place in several ways and at all levels of this work: its first half permeated by a rapid rhythmic interplay and intricacy of ensemble familiar from Boulez’s latter instrumental music – then, after a pivotal piano cadenza, moving into a second half that evolves as a sustained dialogue between trumpet and ensemble. It was here that evidence of a more personal voice began to filter through, such as made one curious to hear more of Amaral’s work. Even if it had not, music this redolent of post-war French modernism is far preferable to the half-baked post-modernism that too often passes for contemporary music on these shores.

The remainder of the evening was devoted, rightly so, to Eötvös’s music – beginning with a welcome revival for Snatches of a Conversation (2001), his fascinating and amusing amalgam of chamber music and melodrama. As in a memorable performance given at the 2003 Proms, the redoubtable Omar Ebrahim whispered his highly associative text (less a conversation overheard than a one-way dialogue freely rendered) with needle-sharp precision, while Marco Blaauw projected the concertante trumpet part – with its Dizzy Gillespie-like use of the double-bell instrument – with insinuating elegance. Such a piece is intriguing in its unexpected amalgam of sound and sense, as well as highly entertaining in the stylistic inferences that the composer fairly goads the listener into hearing during its course.

A major force in the electronic studio long before being recognised as a conductor and composer of distinction, Eötvös often favours an approach in which the dividing-line between musical ‘construction’ and ‘improvisation’ becomes blurred at the hands of a responsive interpreter. Such is persuasively demonstrated in Triangel (1993-2001), where the solo percussionist is made ‘master of ceremonies’ within an ensemble he motivates and responds to. The ten movements unfold in discreet contrast between those led by the soloist and those he merely observes; a relationship mirrored by the often sideline presence of the conductor. After an intensive interplay of steel drums and strings, the work builds to an intricate timpani cadenza punctuated by the ensemble, culminating in the hieratic splendour of massed tam-tams and brass. The soloist effects a leave-taking through a haze of amplified triangles combined with a ruminative clarinet solo – an affecting passage rightly extended in the 2001 revision.

A stalwart of the London Sinfonietta for over a decade, David Hockings took the limelight with aplomb in an account that was meticulous and creative in equal measure. The course of the work was visually underlined by the platform layout, and enhanced by subtle sound amplification and (not to be taken for granted!) the equally subtle deployment of lighting to chart its progress. A fine performance, and a fine demonstration of Eötvös’s creative convictions: the percussion concerto may have come into its own, but few such works have yet played to the strengths of the genre by placing the soloist at the heart of the creative process – something that Eötvös here so elegantly and thoughtfully achieves.

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