Maximinimalists II: The Brits

32 Frames for Orchestra
Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet
Tears of the Angels
L’orgie parisienne

Cynthia Fleming (violin)

Mary Carewe (soprano)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Charles Hazlewood

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 11 October, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The second of the BBC Concert Orchestra’s “Maximinimalists” series; the first in fact – what should have been the opener, a few months ago, was postponed due to Charles Hazlewood’s wife giving birth and remains to be rescheduled.

This current programme, “The Brits”, was interesting in the wake of the Barbican’s recent Steve Reich Festival. As is his wont, Charles Hazlewood addressed the audience between each piece, courting disaster when he compared the minimalist style of composition to a “1970s’ lava lamp” but showing obvious enthusiasm for the music. A pair of cosmic stained-glass images was projected over the orchestra on arrival, but any promise of a subsequent lightshow was thankfully unfounded.

Fittingly, three pieces allowed us contemplation, while three were more confrontational. All inhabited a different universe to Steve Reich’s more progressive style. In the former group sat Gavin Bryars, Howard Skempton and Sir John Tavener. With the Bryars and Skempton together in the first half, the opportunity for musing was a little too pronounced, but Skempton’s Lento made an understated impression. Essentially a series of slow moving, chorale-like harmonic changes, Lento is easy on the ear but affecting in its simplicity. Hazlewood kept it moving, the fortissimo passages clearly drilled and the dynamic shading most effective.

Gavin Bryars’s setting of a homeless man singing in a South London street was close to home, and it is worth remembering this radical contemplation dates from 1971. In total contrast to Steve Reich’s setting of speech, the harmonies remain static, in the stately manner of English remembrance – not, as Hazlewood argued, a regular feature of minimalism but a technique that here induced hypnosis for some, restlessness for others. The dimmed lights helped, as did Hazlewood’s sensitive conducting, but furrowed brows in the orchestra and bronchial outbursts in the audience indicated not everyone was tuned-in to its wavelength.

Tavener’s ecstatic Tears of the Angel suffered the same unsympathetic treatment. Cynthia Fleming played beautifully the solo violin part that represents the angel and with immaculately secured trills, while the muted strings, encouraged to play “at the extreme breaking point of tenderness”, were appropriately stilled.

Graham Fitkin’s bilious outcry, Huoah, galumphed its way into action after the interval with irregular, stabbing dance rhythms and spiky exchanges between instrument groups. At times the orchestra lapsed – double basses and piano were apart on their first unison riff – but the piece kept its momentum, if not placing a duly memorable melody in the listener’s ear.

Andrew Poppy, on the other hand, has a distinctive melodic and harmonic progression at his disposal. Essentially a round of increasing texture and melodic embellishment, 32 Frames is a trance-like piece propelled by motoric bass strings and electric guitar. Hazlewood pointed the melodic inflections well, and the crisp ensemble did much to sharpen the lines toward a convincing end. Displaying a welcome economy, it was an effective concert opener.

Unfortunately, the closing work in the concert was not so successful. After Tavener’s stillness, the outright debauchery of Michael Nyman’s two Rimbaud settings was over the top. And soprano Mary Carewe certainly didn’t need a microphone: her voice was too piercing over the QEH speakers. Nyman has succeeded in his task of setting the orgiastic text effectively, and Carewe performed with exuberance, but the piece left an almost immovable stain on what had gone before.

Nevertheless, an ambitious and interesting concert can be judged a success – and if the brisk business on the CD stand afterwards was anything to go by, the BBC had done its job in advocating a uniquely British take on a style of American origin.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 18 October at 7.30 p.m.

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