London Sinfonietta/Knussen – Carter Premiere (23 January)

Double Sextet [London premiere]
Tigres Azules [Sinfonietta commission: world premiere]
Read Thomas
In My Sky at Twilight * [European premiere]
Dialogues ** [BBC commission: world premiere]

Claire Booth (soprano) *

Nicolas Hodges (piano) **

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 January, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

’Americas’ is the (translated) title of Edgard Varèse’s groundbreaking masterpiece, as heard at the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s John Cage weekend at the Barbican. Good planning – however unintentional – that the London Sinfonietta should follow it just days later with works from across the American continent: demonstrating the musical diversity in the Americas over eight decades after Varèse coined the term in sound.

True, both of the composers featured in the first half are Argentinean émigrés resident in Europe. In the case of Mauricio Kagel, a Southern Hemisphere perspective on European culture has long been integral to his composing – whether in the theatrical domain for which he is still best known, or in the purely instrumental sphere to which he has contributed numerous major works in recent years. If there is a theatrical element in Double Sextet, it lies in the registral gulf between high and low instruments permeating not only the sound, but also the rhythmic and expressive development of this substantial and tautly argued work. And, whatever the incidental unpredictability emerging as the music unfolds, the larger journey from hectic activity to outward stasis is a purposeful and satisfying one – especially given the commitment of the Sinfonietta players in this performance.

With the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra having given premieres of her work, Silvina Milstein is perhaps more familiar north than south of the border – though both Lontano and the BBC Singers have performed her music on several occasions. Taking its inspiration from a typically evocative story by Victor Luis Borges, Tigres Azules (Blue Tigers) pursues the self-evolving melodic writing she has evolved over the last 15 years – made sensuousness by the presence of a ’continuo’ group of harp and keyboard instruments to point up detail emerging from the interplay between five each of wind and strings. Too much detail, in fact, as textures feel overloaded such that a more linear momentum fails to emerge – the three-part trajectory referred to being barely in evidence.

Clarity and coherence are hardly lacking in either of the pieces after the interval. A major presence on the US contemporary scene, Augusta Read Thomas can count Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez among the champions of her music. In My Sky at Twilight is less a song-cycle than an anthologised sequence of poetry, cast in two large sections and connected by an instrumental interlude whose textural translucency and harmonic refinement are hallmarks of this composer. That said, the diversity of the verse chosen – ranging from Ancient Egyptian to ee cummings – is not matched by the range of musical treatment, which, by maintaining a heightened intensity throughout, precludes the intended sense of transcendence from emerging. No fault of Claire Booth, who projected the vocal line – supply shaped according to the need of each poem – with vibrant emotional involvement.

So to the premiere of not quite the latest work by nonagenarian Elliott Carter, now in what he has himself referred to as his “Indian Fall” of composing. If last year’s Boston Concerto was a revisiting of facets from 1969’s Concerto for Orchestra, Dialogues could be viewed as a similar reassessment of the relation between piano and ensemble first adumbrated in 1965’s Piano Concerto. Yet what was often tragically confrontational is now witty and often capriciously playful, the soloist ’circulating’ within a chamber orchestra of single woodwind and 10 strings in a manner which is elegant, laconic and not without its peremptory asides, but always an inherently civilised discourse between equals.

Perhaps Carter is consciously emulating the concerto precept passing from Bach through Mozart to Stravinsky? Perhaps he is simply enjoying continued creativity mid-way through his tenth decade? Whichever, Dialogues is a delight to mind and ear – especially when so persuasively rendered by Nicolas Hodges, his light touch and incisive pianism ideally suited to Carter’s music. The Sinfonietta and Oliver Knussen were eloquent in their advocacy – reaffirming the conviction that, whether or not Carter is now Western music’s oldest active composer, he is certainly its greatest living exponent.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 7 February as part of “Hear and Now”
  • London Sinfonietta

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