Reviewed by: John Fallas
Reviewed: 9 January, 2004
Venue: Purcell Room, London
There’s a curious dialectic that informs the experience of going to hear a young upcoming instrumentalist. Their chance to shine, our opportunity to discover a wonderful new violinist, pianist, guitarist or accordionist – offset by certain problematic repertoire-constraints in certain cases – perhaps especially-bound are those instruments whose protagonists must aim constantly to ’extend the repertoire’ and in so doing condemn themselves to the eternal return of that which they would escape.
Wednesday’s programme booklet announced euphonium player David Childs’s dedication to “raising the profile of his chosen instrument within the world of classical music”, and indeed every single piece in his programme had been written for him, at some point over the last five years (he is now twenty-two). He also boasted the usual roll-call of competition acclaim, awards and distinctions. One sometimes wonders what is left for brass soloists to achieve when they no longer qualify for Young Musician status.
I don’t mean to sound negative, but the profile of the euphonium will only truly be altered the day Pierre Boulez feels inspired to write a solo for the instrument. In the meantime, Childs proved himself a more than competent advocate for what the instrument can and generally does do, with a grateful tone, flexibility, some real virtuosity and great ffs! Two of his pieces were less than absorbing; of the other two, Alun Hoddinott’s Sonata was the most predictably competent-but-dull, while Elena Firsova’s world premiere Euphonisms (another sonata, in all but name) the most pleasantly enjoyable. Indeed, through her week as co-featured composer (with John Casken) Firsova gave unexpected pleasure in modest and unassuming, personal and eminently practicable chamber pieces, most of them commissioned at one time or another by a specific performer.
The two piano soloists who provided the rest of the evening’s entertainment benefited from a more amenable variety in choice of repertoire, and the other featured composer John Casken’s programme-booklet tribute to the open-minded curiosity of young players, their unprejudiced willingness to engage with new music, certainly found two exemplars here. In the early-evening concert, the 27-year-old Christina Mairi Lawrie was impressively unfazed by an ambitious programme consisting of three substantial pieces: Sadie Harrison’s engaging sequence of Impresa amorosa (1998), Brian Elias’s Beethoven-modelled Variations (1987), and James MacMillan’s strong early Piano Sonata (1985, though the original series brochure claimed 1993). The playing-style matched the works’ scale and relatively abstract, discursive rhetoric. Lawrie impressed immediately with her full tone and unrushed demeanour. The Harrison work, one felt, a different player might have taken more in terms of its constituent seven miniatures; Lawrie favoured cumulative power over immediate effect and vivid local characterisation, but in so doing communicated a largely satisfying unity of purpose and character.
A suspicion of a slight lack of variety in tone-colour – for very soft, loud, or fast passages, or to bring out the strands of a contrapuntal texture – was confirmed in the next piece, and made Elias’s conception seem a little too polite, rather safe. Maybe it was! But here one began to miss most acutely qualities in the performance such as ferocity, attack, and caprice, and while figuration was tidy and lucid, tonal variety and contrast became particularly an issue in an extended variation structure such as this. It was in the MacMillan, by contrast, that the dividends of Lawrie’s measured, calmly intelligent approach really paid. In the second, main movement she showed a genuine sense of phrasing and cumulative structure, and produced a singing tone which was beautiful as well as tidy.
The real star of the evening was Taiwan-born Evelyn Chang, whose inspired playing brought out the invention in two modest miniatures – poetic offerings from Dobrinka Tabakova and Elena Langer – and communicated in Alfred Schnittke’s Second Piano Sonata a secure structural grasp illuminated by detail and by technical virtuosity, let down only marginally by a weak ending. And there was more to come, as she possessed all the requisite force for Ed Bennett’s “loud, athletic and relentless” Staggering, leaving one with the impression she could do anything: no polite holding back here!
On to Friday, where the ’repertoire-bound’ risk was the saxophone quartet, always a challenge for a composer to pull off. I’ve heard it done well often enough, though, to have approached the evening with cautious optimism. In any case, there was something genuinely to look forward to in the other strand of the concert, given by violist Dimitri Murrath – a real ’modern classic’, barely ten years old. Ligeti’s six-movement Sonata for Viola Solo engages, in turn and in study-like miniature, some of the characteristic ’types’ of material which define the composer’s later output: the harmonic series in the first movement, the ’lamento’ melody of the fifth, and pseudo-tonal harmony in the third. Sad to report, Murrath stumbled at the first hurdle. His pitching of the crucial non-tempered notes in the opening ’Hora lunga’ was unsure (indeed, he often played flat throughout the evening), with a tempo significantly slower than the score indicates. In the third movement he failed to bring out the repeating tune from among the accumulating multiple stops, thus obscuring the typical Ligeti structure of complexity audibly derived from simplicity. Murrath got his fingers round the notes well enough in the fast second and fourth movements, though here – as particularly in the sixth – there was insufficient differentiation of dynamic levels, leading to a lack of dramatic intensity and emotional involvement. Who would have guessed, listening, that the score gets up to ffffff at the climax of the final movement?
The Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s Tre notturni brillante (1975) saw Murrath fare a good deal better, displaying real virtuosity and communication in these studies in extended technique and delicate expression. On the edge of silence, Sciarrino conjured up a soundworld of china-glass fragility, and Murrath was at last discoursing, if still visibly nervous. (This will of course lessen with repeated exposure on stage.) Before this, Jeremy Dale Roberts’s intelligent and moving Wieglied more than confirmed the favourable impression created by the premiere of his Oggetti the night before, in a performance marred only by a rather ugly flatness in the ritornello.
Meanwhile, the saxophone quartet strand of the evening traced something of a descending arc into banality. The Tempest Saxophone Quartet was technically secure enough, its players at their best in what was also the best piece, John Casken’s Nearly Distant (2000), opening the 7.30 concert in a blaze of colour and rhythmic energy, but even here they could have been more characterful, more alive to the (here subtle, elsewhere all too obvious) jazz inflections of their chosen or assigned repertoire.
Casken proved only intermittently inspired over the course of a week’s concerts and six performances (Firsova had nine), but this was among the better pieces played. (My personal favourite was Ia Orana, Gauguin, given a thrilling, once-in-a-blue-moon outing by the unwaveringly firm-toned, unabashedly cough-afflicted Anna Dennis on the Tuesday evening.) Firsova’s contribution to the genre, Far Away, was a little overlong but nowhere near as tiresome as Judith Bingham’s new work Lacemaking or Stan Sulzmann’s Keeping the Wolf. The PLG Committee does enough of a good thing in putting on this week of music every January, and doesn’t need “one of this country’s most notable jazzmen” (to quote the programme booklet) to bring this series to “a vibrant conclusion” – nor to “feel privileged to be able” to commission this concert jazz-lite.
That said, the programming for the week was on the whole successful, notably managing to find good pieces by a number of composers this reviewer for one might ordinarily have written off. If there is a slight Middle England bias to the composer choices, that fits with the Radio Four-ish atmosphere of the whole occasion and, while regrettable, is unlikely to change any time soon. (Besides which, the PLG is hardly more culpable than any other comparable London new-music series.) What ought to be addressed as a matter of considerably greater urgency is the unjustifiably chaotic state of the programmes – dates of birth and of composition missing, or contradicting other statements; the lack of any notes at all on Tuesday evening (they did turn up, which is why I didn’t mention: Ed), and of biographical information for several composers throughout the week; uninformative, ill-expressed or badly-presented programme notes, especially those by the performers themselves, who almost uniformly are less literate than they are musical and really should have been saved from themselves by a good copy editor. Really, these sorts of things are quite crucial for any excellent artist just starting out on a professional career and striving to make the best possible first impression.
Finally (for this review), the six o’clock Friday concert: four student works, three of them brand new, billed as a trailer for the weekend-to-come of workshops, recordings and symposia. In the event it didn’t make one look forward too desperately. The best piece was the non-premiere, a 1999 work by David Gorton included, one presumes, as a replacement for a no-show from one of the other colleges involved in the weekend (since it was one of two Royal Academy of Music pieces in this Friday programme).
Pilvet (the title is Finnish for clouds) pleased with some attractive textural invention and an impressive sustained quality in the interweaving of string lines towards the middle of the piece. The other RAM contribution, Adam Melvin’s Interrupted Surfaces, was little better than its spoken introduction – each student composer gave one; all were far from being lucid and concise; Melvin’s, hand in pocket, was trendy it its inarticulateness and mainly inaudible, and most of it should have been consigned to the written programme note – its more or less plausible individual gestures not really original or absorbing enough, the ensemble somehow lacking tension (by which I mean what sustains interest, and makes a piece rather than a mere sequence of sounds).
From the GSMD was Francesco B. Cilluffo’s Suddenly Last Summer, which drew etiolated inspiration from the Tennessee Williams play, a sort of effete Lord of the Flies. Representing the RCM, Mihailo Trandafilovski’s Harmorheomody began well, its pointillist textures admitting some surprisingly euphonious triadic harmonies, even if it did fall off a little in interest as it progressed.
The members of the Royal Academy’s contemporary-specialist Manson Ensemble were to a man committed, articulate advocates, and conductor Edward Gardner – who looked impressively young to have been just appointed Music Director of Glyndebourne Touring Opera – was precise and sensitive, as were the majority of the players and performances all the week.