Momentum: The Music of Mark-Anthony Turnage (17-19 January)

An Invention on ’Solitude’
Bass Inventions
Dark Crossing
Etudes and Elegies (A Quick Blast; Uninterrupted Sorrow; A Quiet Life) [BBC commission: world premiere of complete work and A Quiet Life]
Fractured Lines [World premiere of revised version]
Momentum [World premiere of revised version]
Slide Stride [World premiere]
The Game is Over [BBC commission: world premiere]
Three Screaming Popes
True Life Stories
Twice Through the Heart
Two Vocalises
Your Rockaby

Clarinet Trio in B flat, Op.11 (Gassenhauer)
String Trio in C minor, Op.9/3
Sinfonia da Requiem
Symphony of Psalms

Peter Erskine (percussion)
Evelyn Glennie (percussion)
Dave Holland (double bass)
Stephanie Marshall (mezzo-soprano)
Martin Robertson (saxophone)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Alexander Briger

London Sinfonietta
Jac van Steen

Nash Ensemble

Performances at the Barbican Hall and St Giles, Cripplegate, London on 18 & 19 January

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 January, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Taking the music of Mark-Anthony Turnage as the basis for this year’s BBC composer weekend made sense in a number of ways. Now in his early forties, Turnage has amassed a fair-sized body of work that shows an evolution towards the stylistic synthesis now in evidence. For all the talk of jazz, blues and funk fusion (what was Miles Davis all about?), Turnage is very much a representative British classical composer from the past quarter-century; unafraid to flaunt his musical inclinations when desired, but adept in integrating genres to a degree unmatched by like-minded contemporaries.

The present selection was generally well made, though it was a pity that Drowned Out (1993) – the powerful if unwieldy culmination of his time as Composer-in-Association with the City of Birmingham SO – was heard only at one of the excellent concerts at the Guildhall School. Likewise Kai (1990) – Turnage’s intense tribute to the late cellist of the Ensemble Modern, and the first of his inventive concerto-type works, though Louise Hopkins’s commitment and Jason Lai’s perceptive conducting made the Guildhall performance one to savour. Some of the numerous withdrawn works might have been worth reviving in this context: memory suggests that the orchestral work Gross Intrusion, not heard since its 1988 premiere, would be one such. Moreover, the absence of Night Dances (1981), Turnage’s orchestral debut and an enticing juxtaposition of impressionistic harmonies and cool jazz-derived melodies, and Silent Cities (1998), the elegiac meditation which raised his orchestral prowess onto a new level, were serious omissions given the presence of works of undeniably lesser stature.

Certainly it was worthwhile to revive Greek (1988), where Steven Berkoff’s East End-Oedipus satire is ’relativised’ with a vengeance. Some of the anti-Thatcherite jibes now seem quaint in the light of recent political aggrandisement, but the impact of Turnage’s score has barely lessened over 15 years – and this semi-staged performance, economically directed by Clare Venables, highlighted its theatrical ingenuity. The proto-rap chants to depict marauding police may have weathered no better than the average Crass number, but such sections as Eddy’s farewell and his love duet with Wife (i.e. – ’real’ mother) have a bruised lyricism the more affecting in having emerged from the stridency elsewhere. There’s humour too – as the manic repetitions over breakfast, and confrontation with a stereotypically feminist Sphinx readily demonstrate. Roderick Williams’s Eddy was decently projected and superbly sung – the numerous falsetto passages effortlessly phrased – while Rebecca de Pont Davies exuded hard-bitten passion as Wife. Mary Plazas’s Mum was less distinctive than her Sphinx, while Richard Chew was as vocally adept in the awkward bonhomie of Dad as in the surly nastiness of Cafe Manager and Chief of Police. Jac van Steen directed a primed London Sinfonietta with gusto, and gave a neat cameo as keeper of the ’oil-soaked teddy bear’.

Your Rockaby (1993), a saxophone concerto proceeding by pungent variants of a theme not revealed until the closing berceuse (a process not unlike that adopted by Britten in his Sinfonia da Requiem, a decent performance of which opened Saturday’s early-afternoon concert), remains Turnage’s most convincing integration of blues harmonies within an orchestral idiom immediate and uncompromising. Martin Robertson was suitably plangent in the part written for him, while Peter Erskine was equally engaged in the percussion obbligato of the sparky Momentum (1991) – football chants and symphonic funk retaining all their visceral appeal in this apparently revised version. The world premiere of the complete Etudes and Elegies (2002), Turnage’s half-hour triptych written as the BBCSO’s Associate Composer, the first two pieces performed previously, marginally failed to live up to expectations. The central panel, Uninterrupted Sorrow, combines a concerto-like virtuosity with some of his most intricate harmonic and rhythmic thinking, but the flamboyance of A Quick Blast felt a little manufactured, and the string threnody of A Quiet Life sounded closer to freeze-dried Honegger than the composer may care to admit. Leonard Slatkin directed an assured performance, and the overall work may yet grow in stature.

Not that Turnage in mid-life is sounding comfortably middle aged, as the piano quintet for the Nash Ensemble, Slide Stride (2002), amply demonstrated. Inspired by the slide piano of early jazz ’greats’ James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, it bristles with intervallic leaps and surprise syncopation, building cohesively – via a mesmerising passage of detached chords and liquid harmonics – to a bravura finish. Musical polymath Sir Richard Rodney Bennett must be well pleased with the dedication. The recital also featured True Life Stories, five tributes and memorials forming an attractively intimate suite – elegantly played by pianist Ian Brown – and the clarinet quintet An Invention on ’Solitude’ (1998). Brahms and Ellington – via Billie Holiday – rendezvous productively in this quixotic piece, conceptually complex in a manner that the expressive Two Vocalises (2002) – lovingly played by cellist Paul Watkins – entirely avoid. Beethoven, whose rhythmic drive has had a lifelong effect upon Turnage, opened each half with two early pieces – the emotionally charged C minor String Trio and the ingratiating B flat Clarinet Trio, each sounding characterful in the recesses of St Giles, Cripplegate.

Sunday afternoon brought the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Alexander Briger in a programme opening with Dark Crossing (2000). This triptych of etudes has been likened to Debussy’s La mer in its evocative motion, though Nocturnes is more apparent in the progression from tense mystery, through manic activity, to ambivalent poise. Some imaginative timbral shading doesn’t quite compensate for elaborate textures, which tend to congeal rather than coalesce, with an overall emotional trajectory more equivocal than elusive. No such uncertainty about Twice Through the Heart (1996), which replaced the London premiere of The Torn Fields. Soprano Stephanie Marshall was right inside this dramatic scena, in which ’a woman’ relives her disintegrating marriage, and the abuse that led her to murder. Some of Turnage’s most searching and poignant music gives Jackie Kay’s often awkward verse (finesse does matter – even in so emotive a subject) a compulsive dramatic sweep. The concert ended with Bass Inventions (2000), the double bass concerto heard at the Barbican a year ago. Dave Holland again did the honours in this most subtle of Turnage’s jazz-inspired pieces, though this time the involved transformation process of the final ’Workout’ really did seem to justify its length. Throughout the 37 minutes, the soloist’s deriving of the musical substance from the vantage of a contrapuntal ’ground bass’ is ingenious and absorbing.

Ominously entitled “The Game is Over”, the final concert featured the world premiere of Turnage’s so-named work marking the 75th anniversary year of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (vibrantly sung, less satisfying orchestrally) is a hard act to follow, but this setting of Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem – shot through with the aftermath of cultural collapse – was expert rather than inspired. The luminous choral writing projected Peter Filkins’s translation with clarity – as did Margaret Feaviour in the brief soprano contributions – while the pointed reiteration of the German title ’Das Spiel ist aus’ and offstage flugelhorns at the close were tellingly evocative. Yet it is difficult not to feel that the piece fulfils a similar aesthetic function to Parry’s choral odes a century earlier. Even less rewarding musically was the percussion concerto Fractured Lines (2000); its harmonic and rhythmic routines sound tired and uninspired. Evelyn Glennie and Peter Erskine gave their all, not least in cadenzas for marimba and drum-kit that divide the work into three sections across an arch-like form, but the orchestral writing sounds diffuse by Turnage’s standards.

Not so Three Screaming Popes (1989) – the breakthrough orchestral work which confirmed real substance behind the apparent image. Francis Bacon’s Velázquez mutations and Spanish ’golden age’ dance measures find productive use in this heady combination of rhythmic vitality and harmonic plangency, with a sure understanding of the ’bite’ between the visceral and the subtle. Together with Night Dances and Silent Cities (sorry to labour the earlier point!), it makes a career-spanning orchestral trilogy that reinforces Turnage as a composer of stature: as did the voluble response to Slatkin’s uninhibited performance – which ended the evening, and the weekend, on an undoubted high.

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