New To London – 16th May

Jonathan Cole
Assassin Hair [BBC commission for the London Sinfonietta: World premiere]
Detlev GlanertSecret Room – Chamber Sonata No.3 (2002) [London Sinfonietta commission: World premiere]
Peter Maxwell Davies
Veni Creator Spiritus (2002)
Crossing Kings Reach (2001) [First public performance]
George Perle
Critical Moments (1997) [London premiere]
Critical Moments 2 (2002) [European premiere]

Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano)
Sebastian Bell (flute)
Mark van de Wiel (bass clarinet)
London Sinfonietta conducted by Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 May, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

During his tenure as Music Director of the London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen’s “New to London” concerts have proved an invaluable means of combating the insularity into which British music is always prone to fall. The present concert was thoughtfully constructed including two recent works by Peter Maxwell Davies and a major new commission from Jonathan Cole.

Each half opened with a set of Critical Moments by veteran American composer George Perle (born 1915). It is a not unexpected irony that a composer whose writings have done so much to elucidate serial thinking should have gained only a modicum of respect for his music. A pity too, for these collections, of six and nine movements respectively, typify the tonally-grounded serialism of Perle’s maturity – miniatures whose concentration is playful as well as intense. Performed with evident enjoyment, they proved pleasurable and enlightening in equal measure.

Of the two Maxwell Davies works, Veni Creator Spiritus is a return to the pure rhythmic processes of his earliest acknowledged music. The bass clarinet pursues a steady ’cantus firmus’ line, derived from two plainsongs, which the flute decorates with arabesques of no mean virtuosity – the isorhythmic interplay skilfully attended to by Sebastian Bell and Mark van de Wiel.

Such lucidity was in striking contrast to Detlev Glanert’s Secret Room (2002) – the third of his chamber sonatas, in which this stylistically wide-ranging composer restricts his musical palette in search of an abstract synthesis of ideas. The emergence of layers upon layers, or rather their implied memory, gives a sense of constant arrival to the mounting activity of this piece – enhanced by the colouristic definition Glanert draws from his chamber ensemble.

The concert ended with Crossing King’s Reach – Maxwell Davies’s personal perspective on the aural and visual journey from St Paul’s to Tate Modern via the Millennium Bridge (for whose reopening the piece was commissioned). A 16-minute traversal couched in terms familiar from earlier Maxwell Davies works – notably the affectionate debunking which marks out his pre-classical transcriptions and, more recently, his evocations of places as diverse as Orkney and Las Vegas. The problems familiar from his large-scale symphonic works (has there ever been such a thing as a ’Maxwell Davies allegro’?) are of lesser consequence in music where description plays a central role. No surprises, then, but a diverting and likeable score – and with a deftly-conceived ’open’ ending.

The first half had ended with the undoubted highlight of the evening – the first performance of Jonathan Cole’s Assassin Hair. Cole came to attention three years ago when Ouroboros II – a persuasive and personal amalgam of idioms drawn from composers as diverse as Boulez, Gerhard and Carter – won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s 1999 Composition Prize. Assassin Hair fulfils the promise shown then, in impressive and unexpected ways.

Cole sets five poems by the French writer Georges Bataille (1897-1962), whose work ranges from the rigorously abstract to the overtly pornographic. Drawing on idiomatic-sounding translations by Robert Hurley, Cole conveys the wildness and unpredictability of Bataille’s wordplay (the Sinfonietta’s instrumental line-up utilised to the full), while an emotional follow-through across the three parts ensures that an intelligible, but never schematic form holds the freely associative imagery in check.

Jean Rigby, whose rich and lucid mezzo tone stood out against the fastidious timbral and dynamic shades of Cole’s ensemble writing, performed Assassin Hair with typical commitment. An undoubted achievement that deserves further performances.

  • This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and is broadcast this Saturday, 25 May, at 10.45pm Click here to Listen on-line
  • The Sinfonietta marks “Knussen at 50” in the QEH on 12 June – Knussen chamber works plus world premiere of tribute-pieces from Carter, Goehr, Lindberg, Turnage and others
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