London Sinfonietta/George Benjamin – 25 January

Granum sinapsis – Umbrae Mortis – Dona eis [UK premiere]
Jagden und Formen [London premiere]

BBC Singers
London Sinfonietta
George Benjamin

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 January, 2003
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This concert of uncompromising major works by two important living European composers might have seemed a throwback to a long-gone Modernist heyday. In fact, it showed a conviction in programming and performance that was its own justification and, as such, needed no apology.

Save for a retrospective at Huddersfield some years ago, the music of Pascal Dusapin (born 1955) has made little headway in the UK. Like his older contemporaries Hugues Dufourt and Michaël Levinas, Dusapin has gone his own way, drawing on aspects of Boulez and Spectralism in creating an output both harmonically diverse and contrapuntally lucid. Qualities abundantly evident in Granum sinapsis (1992-7), Dusapin’s treatment of a speculative text by the fourteenth-century theologian Meister Eckhart suffuses an often syllabic, always intelligible setting with an intense yet ethereal aura.

Neither of the ensuing pieces quite matches this rapt introspection: Umbrae Mortis (1997) because its condensation of the Requiem feels too emotionally compacted; Dona eis (1997) because its integration of a larger portion of the Requiem with words from the final scene of Dusapin’s opera Roméo et Juliette, and the parallel superimposition of sung and spoken text, fails to gel beyond an immediate aural level. Neither does the presence of wind instruments in the latter piece give it greater timbral density or a feeling of culmination to the whole. Even so, this is choral writing of a range seldom found in contemporary composition, and the BBC Singers were alive to all aspects of its expressive subtlety.

Complete contrast was provided with Wolfgang Rihm’s Jagden und Formen (1995-2001), a continuous 55-minute discourse for chamber orchestra absorbing in its prolixity and exhilarating in its virtuosity. The prolixity derives from the nature of the work’s conception, drawing elements of three earlier works preoccupied with notions of form into an ever-evolving process. The virtuosity comes from the rhythmicised melody that Rihm (born 1952) employs to generate the hectic onward momentum, spilling over the sense of a vast scherzo with three trios-cum-interludes of relative stasis. The crepuscular coda then directs the accumulated energy towards a nothingness that might in itself be a continuation.

Prolific and imposing, Rihm’s output has often seemed inhibited by the examples he seeks to emulate – whether in the Mahlerian emotional angst of his 1970s orchestral scores, or the introspective reaches of his Nono-influenced pieces from the last decade. Not so the present work – which, though it openly displays a wealth of stylistic references (including an archaic quality to the brass usage at climaxes curiously reminiscent of Renaissance polychoral writing), avoided any sense of amassed cultural baggage – allowing itself to be carried aloft on the flood of its own invention.

Likewise the audience in this electrifying performance – confidently directed by George Benjamin, and featuring trenchant pianism from Ian Brown and stratospheric trombone playing from Graham Lee in a work which draws from two dozen musicians the richness and impact of a full orchestra – an achievement that will undoubtedly live on in the minds of those fortunate enough to be present.

  • London Sinfonietta
  • Rihm’s Jagden und Formen is recorded on DG 471 558-2 by Ensemble Modern and Dominique My

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