London Sinfonietta

Testament [UK premiere]
Five Pieces, Op.10
Partage [UK premiere]
Book of Hours [London Premiere]

Sound Intermedia

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 December, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Returning after extended illness, Oliver Knussen presided over a varied concert of various premieres – beginning with a recent work by Jonathan Cole. A posthumous tribute to the writer and new-music advocate Sue Knussen, Testament (2005) traces a steadily unfolding melodic line across a sombre but eventful background; one that draws on the musical motif E flat-E (i.e. – S(u)E) as well as taking in allusions to Stravinsky’s memorial to Debussy – Symphonies of Wind Instruments – as the piece reaches its expressive climax. Scored with clarity and refinement, this is yet a further instance of the diversity within what – over the past few years – Cole’s has become a recognisable and personal idiom.

Such might well also apply to René Mense – the 36-year-old German composer little heard as yet in the UK. The six continuous sections of Partage (2001) might suggest a sequence of abstract character studies: in fact, Mense pursues a process whereby the usual four instrumental groups are seated in a Berio-like arrangement that emphasises timbral continuity, and in which interaction on the cusp of individual spontaneity and ensemble control is made the point of the piece. How the sections coalesce into a unified whole was not readily apparent on a first hearing, such that the work seemed no more than the sum of its parts – but the expertise of Mense’s instrumentation and the precision of his gestures made one curious to revisit it before long.

In between these works came Webern’s Op.10 Pieces – miracles of formal concision and emotional acuity, now fast approaching their centenary. Music the London Sinfonietta has played often during its near-40 years of existence, but seldom with the precision and commitment evident here. At Knussen’s behest, the set was duly repeated – on which its rarefied intensity left no less powerful an impression.

The second half then provided a welcome London outing for Julian Anderson’s Book of Hours (2004). Inspired by two French Medieval artefacts – ‘Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry’ and ‘Tapisseries La Dame à Licorne’ – the contrasts within this 24-minute work give rise to a series of events unified by a process combining formal intensification with expressive diversity. Part One proceeds in wave-like sequences to a vivid culmination, then Part Two focuses the salient ideas into a more dynamic design – bringing a climax in the guise of a lengthy electronic interlude, then a coda whose offhand folksiness opens out onto new expressive terrain. Electronic sounds range from the ‘stand alone’ to those that enhance the instrumentation colouristically but not superficially. Bell sounds are largely avoided, yet the motivic source – the first four notes of the major scale – has an identifiably ‘ringing’ resonance, and the electronic interlude is a heady synthesis of timbres that carries no mean physical impact.

An impact readily apparent in a performance responsive to the music’s requirements of balance and shading, with a speaker placement that projected the electronic component with immediacy but not always an ideal spatial depth, though the distancing effect created by playing the opening of Part Oneat the start of Part Two as if on a badly-pressed LP is a temporal conceit that worked beautifully. The impression remains of a powerful, involving electro-acoustic work that re-affirms the potential of its medium. Hopefully the piece will soon find its way onto disc, along with Anderson’s other works written as Composer in Association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – and so ending the inexplicable absence from the catalogue of what is now a substantial and rewarding body of work.

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