News from the UK

four cycles [World premiere]
Le Contredesir [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto [World Premiere]
Five Famous Adagios [World premiere of Revised Version]
No 36 (NONcerto for Horn) [London premiere]

Sarah Nicolls (piano)

Michael Thompson (horn)

Mark van de Wiel (clarinet)

Janice Graham & Joan Atherton (violins), Jane Atkins (viola) & Timothy Gill (cello)

London Sinfonietta
Zsolt Nagy

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 13 May, 2006
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

Bryn Harrison uses conventional means to achieve riveting and novel effects. He brought together tiny cut-outs of assorted musical shapes, playing and re-assembling their musical colours time and again – as if they were a kaleidoscope.

The first cycle reminded of nature’s sounds at night. Animals and insects came unexpectedly from over here or over there, isolated, in squeaks and croaks of different timbres, with the occasional freakish chorus, soon subsiding. The second cycle took steps towards being contrapuntal: several instruments played wisps of almost-phrases at the same time. In the third cycle, softer and very slightly longer almost-phrases presented themselves as almost-melodies. The last cycle reviewed what had gone before, in the manner of someone slowly and gently turning a multi-coloured glass ball in the palm of his hand. I was enchanted.

Saed Haddad studied music in Jordan and Jerusalem; his philosophy degree is from Leuven in Belgium. Le Contredesir makes no attempt to be ‘modern’. Intervals, rhythms and phrases more familiar to Arabic and Hebrew music-making lay embedded in the Western European context of this piece. The clarinet lent itself elegiacally to voicing Arabic strains. Startling bursts of vigour in two impressive climaxes owed much to the Hebraic dance tradition. In quieter moments, a more sedate rhythm was often stepped – lively, even so, and played with delicious wit.

Philip Cashian’s Piano Concerto was the odd man out. A satisfactorily crafted workhorse hallmarked ‘modern’, it was the most old-fashioned work of the evening. It was also the most conventional (in the sense of unoriginal) and the least attractive. Sarah Nicolls put a lot of effort into giving it a fair hearing – but the piece says nothing that has not been said before.

Joanna Bailie’s Five Famous Adagios was a hyper-intelligent foray for string quartet into hushed and eventually monotonous sound. In the first, the cadence points of several pieces by Bach were played in counterpoint on three horizontal frequency bands; the second section selects some frequency bands from the first section and the third section further refines the original by extracting some frequency bands from the second section. In this ‘process piece’, the ‘original material becomes increasingly unrecognisable’. Joanna Bailie may have found the exercise fascinating.

The last piece was a riot. Richard Ayres’s NONcerto for Horn was that rarity – music in a present-day style that was alive with raucous humour. The jokes were pretty-well sustained throughout its three movements and 25 minutes’ duration. Michael Thompson – whose splendid virtuosity on the horn is in no dispute – obligingly ran several times from the mountain peak stage-right to the mountain peak stage-left, and back again. He also tried, several times, to enter Heaven’s Gate as if from the box magicians use to make people ‘disappear’. In the last movement, he was allowed a music stand near the conductor.

This was party night for the brass, with strings, woodwind and timpani their warmly welcomed guests. Gratefully and joyously, I recalled Walton’s ‘Façade’, Gerard Hoffnung celebrating music through making mayhem in the Albert Hall and Malcolm Arnold at his most lusty and exuberant. I do not mean that Ayres imitated these notables, but that his music was of that ilk – and pretty much in that class.

Zsolt Nagy conducted clearly and with ease. The London Sinfonietta responded in kind.

  • This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 17 June 11.00 p.m.
  • London Sinfonietta

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