London Sinfonietta: Two World Premieres

Detail from the Record [World premiere]
Luke Bedford
Or Voit Tout En Aventure [World premiere]
Chamber Concerto

Claire Booth (soprano)

Clio Gould (violin) & Nicolas Hodges (piano)

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 May, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This oddly if (as it so proved) viably put-together trio of works from the London Sinfonietta and Oliver Knussen featured two world premieres from younger British composers and a still-undervalued Viennese classic. Detail from the Record is a suite by Kenneth Hesketh from his in-progress puppet ballet The Record of Ancient Matters – whose sequence of Japanese-inspired folk-tales should prove as characterful to watch (at least if the preparatory sketches by Amy Luckenbach – displayed in the foyer and reprinted in the programme – are anything to go by) as it is to listen to.

Thus the quiet but restless atmosphere soon established in ‘Of Moths and Dragonflies’ gives way to a chorale-led evocation of ancient splendour – contrasting with the depiction of a first vengeful, then remorseful water-sprite and concluding with the antics of a badger who resides in a tea-kettle. All very entertaining in a decidedly whimsical way – as is Hesketh’s score, which is not to detract from its considerable sophistication of scoring or striking imagery, expertly welded into a continuous span that hardly sounds a suite as such. Enticingly played by the Sinfonietta, it is further evidence of the composer’s continued refining of his intricate but never diffuse approach to sonority – and with a gestural lightness of touch all too easy to overlook but which should never to be taken for granted.

There followed the first performance of “Or Voir Tout En Aventure” by Luke Bedford. This song-cycle, the result of his recent participation in the Sinfonietta’s “Blue Touch Paper” project, sets three texts by Medieval French and Italian poets – the first, a dryly-mocking condemnation of the ‘new music’ (!) that also acts as the title, providing a sceptical refrain between settings whose telling of unrequited love and music as the agent of love are sentiments both distinctly of their time yet also timeless.

A timelessness that Bedford (whose Five Abstracts is one of the most arresting pieces to emerge in British music so far this decade) conveys through a combining of static – though never uneventful – textures and a soprano line that unfolds monodically above the ensemble. The outcome is music of a contemplative intensity that perhaps fails to capture the range of expression secreted within the highly formalised verse structure. Which is not to deny either the individuality of Bedford’s response or the excellence of Claire Booth’s contribution – a soprano of whom great things can be expected.

From here to the world of Berg’s Chamber Concerto (1925) is much further than merely a 20-minute interval. The most painstakingly organised of his instrumental works, its starting-point as a tribute to Schoenberg on his fiftieth birthday has led many commentators to regard its dense abstraction as an misguided act of homage. Something Knussen and these performers were clearly at pains to deny: starting with an account of the initial variations that made engaging the interplay between piano and the 13-strong wind ensemble (its Viennese lilt a self-deprecating but rarely absent presence), then an Adagio in which emotional contrasts were a little too pronounced (the sense of moving full circle to and from a central point of repose needed greater emphasis) but which lacked nothing in expressive conviction. After a coruscating account of its introductory cadenza, Nicolas Hodges and Clio Gould interweaving like the proverbial ‘hand in glove’, the good-naturedly confrontational rondo finale moved vigorously but flexibly to its fragmentary final pay-off – the repeat of the main portion given with a degree of added intensification that justified its taking on musical as well as numerological grounds.

In sum, a fine performance of a misunderstood and, more significantly, misinterpreted work. Knussen apologised for continuing in spite of bursts of feedback from the QEH loudspeakers that periodically threatened to drown out the Adagio – but, as he himself put it, music this involved needed to be heardas a complete entity and, in a performance as involving as this one, his decision was wholly justified.

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