Mesopotamia [London premiere]
Sarah Nicholls (piano / MIDI keyboard)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 3 December, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre – Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Richard Barrett’s return to the UK from Berlin some three years ago made one look forward to a greater representation of his music here. Once regarded as a champion of ‘new complexity’, Barrett has over the past decade broadened and opened-out his language without in any sense diluting its power or intensity. Such was evident from the London premiere of Mesopotamia (2009), itself the fifth part in a series which is collectively entitled Resistance and Vision – of which the first part, NO, received its first performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Barbican Hall five years ago.
The heterogeneous nature of Resistance and Vision is such as to make any complete performance unlikely, but the concept of music that comprises layers that are variously uncovered and relocated – in the manner of evolving civilisations, of which the successive city-states that are Mesopotamia is just one of the most fascinating – is hardly new to his thinking. Thus the present work comprises ten such layers, proceeding in a cumulative linear manner in which anticipations and recollections are yet an essential component of the musical fabric. The ensemble is a varied one though only deployed in total at strategic points; rather it is the sheer range of sonorities drawn from individual instruments (something hardly inappropriate in a work dedicated to the saxophonist Evan Parker) that guides the ear through the music’s manifest yet always enticing intricacies as it unfolds its 25-minute span.
As with all of Barrett’s pieces, Mesopotamia was never going to reveal deeper facets after a first or even a few hearings, but it does engage the emotions as surely as it does the intellect – and to the extent that its difficulties become much more an invitation than a defence. The work was superbly well realised here (following its premiere in Huddersfield a week before) – Sarah Nicholls moving adeptly between the piano and the MIDI keyboard that underlies many of the salient musical textures, and Pierre-André Valade asserting tight yet never inflexible control over the fastidiously organised whole.
The use of live electronics here provided a natural link into the performance of Jonathan Harvey’s Bhakti (1982). Although several of the composer’s earlier experiments employing electronic media have not transcended the limitations of their era, the present work still impresses in terms of its overall vision. Admittedly some of the ensemble-writing now sounds rather more decorative than substantial (just as detectable in numerous contemporary British works from the period), but the interaction with the live electronics is at least convincing and often breathtaking – both in its almost theatrical presence and in its striking simplicity. Attributes which are shared by the hymns from the Rig Veda standing as epigraphs to each of the work’s ten movements, and whose imagery was often uppermost in mind when listening to this committed and resourceful performance by the Sinfonietta.