London Sinfonietta – Michel van der Aa

Michel van der Aa
Hysteresis [London Sinfonietta co-commission: world premiere]
Here Trilogy [UK premiere of complete work]

Thomas Gould (violin)

Mark van der Wiel (clarinet)

Claron McFadden (soprano)

Sound Intermedia (sound projection)

London Sinfonietta
Baldur Brönnimann

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 April, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Michel van der Aa. Photograph: Marco BorggreveHis music may have made notable headway in the UK (notably with the high-profile staging of Sunken Garden by ENO), but there seems to have been no full-length concert devoted to Michel van der Aa until now – making this London Sinfonietta event the more welcome.

A trained recording engineer as well as composer, the interplay of technology and sound has been central to his thinking from the outset. It pervades even so compact and as unassuming a piece as Memo (2003), the violinist needing to be as adept in operating a cassette recorder as in playing the notated music. What results is an increasingly intricate and even fractious call-and-response, in the course of which the soloist’s recorded self can seem to be controlling the live performer’s output: a breviary, in fact, of what this composer’s creativity is concerned with.

Baldur Brönnimann. Photograph: Julieta SchildknechtThomas Gould was the determined if ultimately hapless performer, subsequently taking his place within the Sinfonietta for the first performance of Hysteresis (2013). This is not so much a concerto for clarinet as a face-off between that instrument and an ensemble whose textural and expressive possibilities are duly opened-out by a ‘soundtrack’ that sets their increasingly animated discourse within a confrontation between digital sonic uniformity and its analogue equivalent. Motivic evolution is not so much replaced as simulated by the inexorable process of sound being edited and cut-up as it runs the gamut from Bartókian incisiveness to rhythmic accumulation redolent of ‘house’ music. Mark van der Wiel assuredly made the most of a part in which self-expression is finally undone by the inescapability of a ‘locked groove’.

The concert’s second half was devoted to the Here Trilogy (2001-3), an extended scena that charts the playing-out of the relationship (for want of a better term) between a vocal protagonist and her ensemble surroundings. The opening ‘Here [enclosed]’ is a purely instrumental – the singer glimpsed in the confines of an upright cabin situated to the left of the stage, while the orchestra pursues its determined investigation of an 11-chord mantra whose violent climax corresponds to the illuminating of the compartment from within. An understated epilogue, with solo violin rising ethereally above muted strings, provides a transition to ‘Here [in circles]’ – the soloist emerging to front a reduced ensemble in a fractured dialogue whose culmination sees a three-way collision between voice, instruments and soundtrack of visceral immediacy.

Van der Aa provides the freely associative text for this as for the closing ‘Here [to be found]’. Although the destination towards the whole concept has been heading here, it was written first and its overt disengagement – voice and instruments trapped with a miasma of echoes and anticipations – feels over-extended for all that its last section, the protagonist sounding plangently over a skewed chorale texture, affords a numbed sense of closure. What is never in doubt, moreover, is the dexterity with which the composer has manipulated his material. No less undeniable was the conviction Claron McFadden brought to a vocal part testing in its stamina, nor of the focus Baldur Brönnimann brought to a work that could easily lose impetus as it unfolds. A decade on, this Trilogy enshrines the essence of what Van der Aa is all about.

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