London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen – World Premiere of Ben Foskett’s Violin Concerto (2 April)

Penumbra [Premiere of Revised Version]
Space Play
Violin Concerto [World premiere]
Jubilees [London premiere]

Clio Gould (violin)

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: John Fallas

Reviewed: 2 April, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Composition, the art of making, is often equally concerned with remaking. In the week when the Royal Philharmonic Society announced the results of its Encore scheme – selecting neglected orchestral works to be given a second hearing – Oliver Knussen’s London Sinfonietta programme occupied itself with both the new and the rediscovered, as well as illustrating how composers can make pieces and, more than that, whole oeuvres out of a canny mix of difference and repetition.

The Sinfonietta’s Conductor Laureate introduced his players to three brand new or recent works, and reacquainted today’s principals with a piece not requiring a conductor that Thea Musgrave wrote for their 1974 predecessors-in-virtuosity. Space Play distributes five-wind and four-string soloists across the stage, and fills its nineteen minutes with an at-first predictable but increasingly absorbing series of obbligatos, cadenzas, and dialogues. If one wishes that Musgrave were less beholden to what is often fairly tame instrumental stereotyping, this was a good deal more harmonically inventive than her more recent essays in the genre. And it fulfilled its brief – as a concerto for mini-orchestra, conducted ’from within’ by players cueing one another – with consummate practical skill.

The trope of reworking has many different guises. Ligeti has used the same melodic formula in every significant work since his Piano Concerto of 1985 (the Nonsense Madrigals being the exception). Composers from Birtwistle to Lindberg seem to produce statement after major statement by reworking the same basic matrix. But the variation principle is as old as music itself, and there’s no shame in focussed invention within a predefined framework.

Jonathan Cole’s Penumbra presented yet another face of the phenomenon: this was the first outing for a revised version of a piece premiered last year by a pared-down London Symphony Orchestra. Remaking is at work within the fabric of the piece, too, the title denoting both the conceptual inspiration of exploring an image through its reflections, of an object approached ever more nearly through its shadows, and the musical ’shadows’ which effect this formal aspiration as the piece grows backwards and forwards from its central viola solo. With this kernel of intervallic and melodic substance, Cole is able to invent both the rhythmic propulsions of the middle-movement scherzo and the more sombre colours of its outer neighbours. The finale in particular achieves an uncommon eloquence of instrumental speech, with a real sense of meaningful space around the notes as the piece returned to where it began.

Ben Foskett’s Violin Concerto, meanwhile, is a brand new piece establishing dialogue with what is among the most traditional of musical forms. The opening chain of descending fourths carried sufficient echo of Berg’s concerto to lend the new work generic respectability, even if the ensemble’s relentlessly accompanimental role might have strained some listeners’ idea of what makes a concerto. But beautiful harmonies and colours ensured the discourse was never boring, and I enjoyed the portrait of a rapt, absorbed soloist, her self-communing supported by an ensemble which occasionally simply stopped – not just to rest, but to listen harder. Perhaps more could have been made of this expressive feature if the roles had been sometimes reversed, with passages for ensemble alone inserted to create a greater sense of space in which the protagonist, too, might pause to listen.

Dedicated to and performed by the Sinfonietta’s own Clio Gould, with whom the 26-year-old Foskett worked closely during the compositional process, this is the second work yielded by the Sinfonietta’s Blue Touch Paper project. This admirable initiative, which shows the early signs of nothing but success, is designed to provide young composers with the space to take risks, as well as allowing them contact with performers and composers of international class to counsel and supervise their work.

Foskett’s ’composer mentor’ was Magnus Lindberg, who flew in to be a surprise guest at the pre-concert talk, and it was with a piece by the leading Finnish composer that Knussen concluded the concert. Here, the creative inspiration was most obviously tied up with re-writings – appropriately enough, given the piece’s Boulezian association. Having written a short piano piece for Pierre Boulez’s seventy-fifth birthday, Lindberg has elaborated five more movements to form a suite alternating fast and slow and amplifying aspects of the incident-packed, kaleidoscopic original. Jubilees (2002–3) is scored for ensemble without piano: adding and varying lines and colours, and filling in what the piano originals can’t or don’t say.

Despite a disconcerting tendency for the most striking moments to be the least original ones (with a trace of Tippett’s Ritual Dances in the second movement among the less expected echoes of other music), these sharply characterised and well-contrasted miniatures provided moment-to-moment delights. Indeed, Jubilees is the best new Lindberg piece I have heard for some time, prompting the thought that for all his liking for broad orchestral canvases, here is a composer who is perhaps at his best with the ensemble line-up of tonight’s performers or of their French cousins in the Ensemble Intercontemporain, which commissioned the work.

Not that we were delivered entirely from bombast. The grandiloquence of the fourth movement’s close seemed unjustified, and, after a delicate woodwind ’moto perpetuo’, Lindberg returned to the manner in the closing passacaglia/chorale. This finale was the real let-down: a tiresome formal ’solution’ whose intended exposition of the piece’s governing harmonic framework can only come across as boring (if the harmonic connections are not perceived) or smug (there is insufficient expressive motivation for this predictable technical ploy).

But, all in all, this was perhaps the most satisfactory programme the Sinfonietta has put together in recent months. The playing was consistently involving – special mention must be given to Martin Owen’s directorial horn-playing in the Musgrave – and the music as stimulating and as varied as new music ought to be. All that hard reworking really does pay off!

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