London Sinfonietta – New Season

Symphonies of wind instruments (1920 and 1947 versions)
Voie lactée o Soeur lumineuse
L’Heure bleue [UK premiere]
Gran Duo

London Sinfonietta conducted by Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 October, 2001
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The London Sinfonietta’s new season opened with a wind concert of judicious symmetries and contrasts. Underpinning the whole, and opening each half, was Stravinsky’s Symphonies of wind instruments, heard in its 1920 original and 1947 revised versions.

The haphazard genesis of this nine-minute masterpiece is relatively well known, and recordings of the long unpublished original have been appearing for some years. Hearing both versions in parallel, sensitively and incisively directed by Oliver Knussen, the superiority of the original is confirmed. The finesse of timbre obtained from the oddly-constituted wind grouping is fascinating in itself, but the deployment of unorthodox chord spacings, to articulate the linear progress of this oblique ceremonial, marks a distillation of Stravinsky’s harmonic language up to this point; one that the revision, with its astringent sonorities and levelled-out phrasing, only compromises. Now that a critical edition of the original is available, promoters will hopefully not shy away from the provision of such instruments as alto flute and F clarinet, and give this version the hearings it deserves.

Strings made their only appearances in the short pieces by Henze. Voie lactée o Soeur lumineuse (1996), a 90th birthday tribute to Paul Sacher, is a vividly, often exotically scored toccata, though momentum is only fitfully maintained after the initial pulsating crescendo. L’Heure bleue (2001), a ’twilight-serenade’ dedicated to Knussen, beautifully sustains its evocation of ’the blue hour’ over the Mediterranean, with a belated rhythmic lift suggesting a new trajectory for the music to pursue.

Akrata (1964/5) puts a wonderfully inclusive wind ensemble through its paces. At this stage, the starkness of gesture, rather than long-term cohesion, was still the guiding principle in Xenakis’s music. What engages is the juxtaposition of manic volleys of repeated notes with sustained, abrasive bands of sound over twelve pungent minutes. Interesting too to speculate whether the piece had a direct bearing on some of the music Ligeti was to write – the Ten Pieces for wind quintet and the Chamber Concerto – over the next five years.

The evening ended with Gran Duo (1999-2000), among the most striking of Magnus Lindberg’s recent works. A Stravinskian wind orchestra follows a rigorous groundplan of recurring cycles of musical characters, where simultaneous accelerations and decelerations of tempo are happening constantly. Not that these draw attention to themselves or inhibit a larger expressive momentum as the 20-minute work moves inevitably to its chorale-apotheosis. Here, and in the rich harmonic consonance of the brass writing, the shadow of Sibelius suggests that Lindberg may yet prove a symphonist of stature. The Sinfonietta’s lucid rendition projected this powerful ’symphonies of winds’ in full measure.

  • This concert is broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Monday, 15 October, at 7.30

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