London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen – Elliott Carter & John Woolrich

ASKO Concerto
Between the Hammer and the Anvil [London Sinfonietta commission: world premiere]
Au Quai

John Orford (bassoon) & Paul Silverthorne (viola)

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 January, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Oliver Knussen. ©Clive BardaIn a night of ugly contemporary music clashes in London (there was a Vic Hoyland première in the Barbican Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and music by Jörg Widmann at the Wigmore Hall), the London Sinfonietta returned to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the first of only three projects this winter and spring (Goebbels follows in April and Birtwistle in July). Sandwiched between a belated Sinfonietta celebration of Elliott Carter’s 100th-birthday was the world première of a major new work by John Woolrich, Between the Hammer and the Anvil, a Sinfonietta commission.

Scored for 17 – seven winds (piccolo, cor anglais, E flat, B flat and bass clarinets, soprano saxophone and contrabassoon), arrayed on one side of a V shape; six brasses (tuba, two trombones, two horns and trumpet) on the other. The other four players were formed of three percussionists located adjacent to the three points of the V and a ‘clavinet’ player at the apex, facing Oliver Knussen towards the back of the stage. Each of the percussionists had common to their kit, high-hat cymbals, woodblocks and side drum. The two at the front of the stage, behind piccolo and trumpet respectively had tuned percussion – the anvil (presumably) referred to in the title – while the third percussionist had bass drum amongst his armoury.

At 25 continuous minutes, Between the Hammer and the Anvil is a muscular score, often with wind or brass swirling in unison figures, underpinned by an exciting propulsion that is often punctuated by glittering unison cymbal splashes, syncopated underpinning and runs on the tuned percussion. Occasionally solo instruments add their individual voice, but the work as a whole is like a musical collective. Its soundworld reminds of Mozart’s Gran Partita (K361) – an outdoor work, strong and purposeful – and John Adams – with its unstoppable momentum (until, of course, it’s abrupt end).

Typically Woolrich’s programme note was short – at first glance evasively so. However, it could not have been more exact as a description of the music: “The piece switches between brittle toccatas, musical widgets, chorales and something dark and carnivalesque.” Thankfully microphones were on hand to record the piece, so I hope for a future release on the Sinfonietta’s label, especially in such a taut and convincing performance as this one was directed in typically patrician style by Oliver Knussen.

Elliott Carter (b. 11 Dec 1908)The rest of the programme, devoted to Carter, was also recorded, even though these performers have already released the ASKO Concerto and Dialogues. Again the performances were excellent and a fitting celebration for a composer who remains at the height of his powers.

Just as in his BBC Symphony Orchestra tribute (back in December), Knussen programmed works composed in the present century – so he has conducted ten still-new works by Carter in the last two months. Here the ASKO Concerto, with its duos and trios rising out of the larger ensemble’s music, opened the concert in winning fashion; Carter’s music at once intricate and satisfying both in sonority and logic.

The two large-ensemble works – Réflexions (composed in honour of Pierre Boulez’s 80th-birthday) and Dialogues, played by its inspiration Nicolas Hodges, as a late replacement for the originally announced 2006 song-cycle “In the Distances of Sleep” which was to have been sung by Rosemary Hardy, unfortunately indisposed – revelled in sectional phrasing I found new in Carter’s work; closer to the musical mainstream than his complex earlier scores, but with the same stamp of individuality that has always marked Carter out. In Dialogues the close-working rapport between conductor and soloist was evident (from my seat I could only see Knussen’s head and arm above the piano lid, enhancing the constant eye contact between him and Hodges).

In between these two large works (almost 15 minutes apiece) was a delightful duo, for bassoon and viola (step forward John Orford and Paul Silverthorne), entitled Au Quai and suggested by a short story by Schoenberg “To the Wharfs” about a French fishing village waiting in trepidation after a storm for the return of the fishing fleet. How the alternating snatches – immediately swapped – taken by the instruments at the start, or the developing interweaving between bassoon and viola lines matched the story I’m not sure (the title refers to the cry of relief when the fleet is spotted: “to the wharfs, aux quai. O.K.”), but the beauty of the piece could never be in doubt. My only quibble – too short!

Extremely warmly received by a small but committed audience, this was a miraculous and wonderful concert.

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