London Sinfonietta – Theseus Game (2 December)

Tragoedia *
Theseus Game [London premiere]
Wind Sequences ** [London premiere]

Sebastian Bell (flute) **

London Sinfonietta
Martyn Brabbins * & Pierre-André Valade **

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 December, 2003
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s association with the London Sinfonietta has been a long and fruitful one – beginning with the Varèsian abrasiveness of Verses for Ensembles (1968), almost the Sinfonietta’s first commission. As a context for his new work, however, the entrée was one from even earlier in his maturity. It’s all too easy with hindsight to hear Tragoedia (1965) as a creative ’dry run’ for the chamber opera Punch and Judy; yet, both in its formal layout and musical expression, this ’goat dance’ is a radical departure for European music of the period.

After a stark Prologue, the work proceeds symmetrically as in Greek drama, with solo instruments set in opposition to the ensemble in a manner to which Birtwistle has returned repeatedly over nearly four decades. Martyn Brabbins’s performance brought real dynamism to the Parados and Exodus sections, and a poised intensity to the deceptively static Stasimon at its centre. The surrounding Episodion portions lacked a little of the arching intensity needed to sustain them – though the solo contributions from horn and cello, animated and impassioned by turns, were perfectly judged.

Respected as a conductor for many years now, Peter Eötvös has only latterly come to the fore as a composer. Like numerous of his works, Wind Sequences started out, in 1975, as a substantially different proposition from what it became in 2002. The eight continuous sections, of varying length and aural density, may have had improvisational and aleatoric aspects that have now been ironed out, resulting in a sequence of aural impressions for flute and ensemble too eventful to be contemplated without, yet lacking purpose within and between themselves. Sebastian Bell’s thoughtful contribution held the attention almost in spite of the musical ideas. Not so much calming, then, as uninvolving.

Such could hardly be levelled at Theseus Game, the much-anticipated new Birtwistle piece receiving its London premiere after airings in Frankfurt (by Ensemble Modern, the joint-commissioners with the London Sinfonietta) and Huddersfield. The role of the two conductors, while visually striking, is significant less in promoting complexity than in furthering continuity. Formally, the work revisits the process fundamental to Secret Theatre (1984) of individual instruments assuming solo positions, their relationship to each conductor changing so that the interplay of each ensemble is a fluid and dynamic one. Once again, the linear writing for the soloists is complemented by and refracted in the polyphonic discourse of the ensembles – resulting in an ever-changing voice threaded through a surrounding labyrinth that points up the mythical connotation of the title.

Musically, the 35-minute Theseus Game is hard to assess – for the simple reason that it impresses through the consistency of its approach as it disappoints through the retrenchment of its idiom. Less a case of not breaking new ground, however, as of consolidating without noticeably enriching that which Birtwistle has long made his own. True, the discourse is now carried out with even greater subtlety and poise than hitherto, but the sense remains of revisiting old friends – and from any number of aurally familiar perspectives. Those new to Birtwistle may well have found themselves enthralled; those familiar with some of his earlier triumphs are likely to have found the work a pleasurable, even comfortable listen. Superbly realised under the joint directorship of Martyn Brabbins and Pierre-André Valade, the London Sinfonietta ensured that the performance at least will resonate in the memory.

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