Eliza McCarthy (piano)
Sirocco Quartet [Michaela Stapleton (soprano saxophone), Greta Schaller (alto saxophone), Andrew Somerville (tenor saxophone) & Rachael Moorhead (baritone saxophone)]
Victoria Simonsen (cello)
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 8 January, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room
Day four of Park Lane Group’s New Year Series exemplified all that is best about this week of music-making, revealing both established and fledgling scores in performances of commitment and flair.
The early evening recital from Eliza McCarthy comprised a programme that Joanna MacGregor might perform, and contained a hugely impressive account of Volume One of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos. This remarkable piece expanded the limits of piano composition on its arrival in 1972, even when taking into account the advances made by John Cage. The performer seemingly spends as much time standing as sitting, often leaning uncomfortably into the amplified piano to pluck or scrape the strings, simultaneously depressing either pedal.
Each of the twelve pieces represents a sign of the Zodiac and is strikingly varied in emotion and texture. McCarthy was totally alive to the work’s possibilities in a combination of dazzling virtuosity, sensitive use of silence and an incisive ear for the all-important variations in timbre required by the composer, pursuing a course of intense drama. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the ‘Night Spell’ of Sagittarius, where she whistled softly and eerily into a piano already reverberating with clicks, knocks and strums that represented an extension of Bartók’s ‘night music’.
Often the audience were subjected to sudden dynamic shifts, wrenched out of a reverie in the hard, clanging treble of ‘The Magic Circle of Infinity’ (Leo), while the initial timbres of ‘Primeval Sounds – Genesis 1’ (Cancer) suggested a particularly uncomfortable horror-film soundtrack. McCarthy also caught Crumb’s sense of the wide-open, with the listener often transported to starry American plains.
It was a nice idea to frame this large-scale structure within two shorter, explicitly tonal pieces. Following Makrokosmos was a vibrant piece by Oscar Peterson, A Little Jazz Exercise (transcribed by Jonathan Shenoy). This asked for and received tasteful and rhythmic right-hand improvisation, the curled bass line fluid in McCarthy’s left-hand.
The UK premiere of Michael Torke’s Blue Pacific prefaced the Crumb, and while McCarthy had a few problems with the octaves of the climactic passage she successfully conveyed Torke’s vision from on top of a cliff in Mexico, that of a popular melody borne on the wind from the sea.
Only the recital’s opener lacked real substance, Cameron Reeves’s Das Hexenklavier (2006) implied a programmatic work of Lisztian design in its grand movement titles before falling ultimately into a series of gestures that weren’t quite as outlandish as its title – The Witches’ Piano – implied they might be. That said, McCarthy gave the piece a good sense of structure and phrase.
The second concert continued the highly successful format of juxtaposing two very different instrumental combinations, in this case the Sirocco Saxophone Quartet and cellist Victoria Simonsen. The quartet began with the cogent Gossamer by David Horne, a piece that demands, and here received, extreme clarity of ensemble. With a real depth to their fortissimo sound, the Sirocco musicians gave momentum to the thematic ideas as they flew out at tangents, but it was when the melodic threads grew softer that the piece gained extra substance.
Of a briefer design was Throw Back by Charlotte Bray, a nice musical play on the notes offered by alto-saxophonist Greta Schaller’s name, and here receiving its world premiere. It indulged in the harmonic nuances found in the first movement, reprising them in different forms in the third, while the faster but slightly less effective central movement featured well placed solos from each player.
The quartet returned after the interval with another world premiere, that of Tansy Davies’s Leaf Springs. Imbued with the spirit of the dance, this attractive work contained thematic material of real durability, started confidently by baritone-saxophonist Rachael Moorhead before the other three enjoyed the music’s offbeat play. With the piece named after the spring that causes the saxophone keys to return to the rest position after release it was by nature mechanical, a quality exploited by Davies’s spiky humour.
Victoria Simonsen chose two pieces written for Arditti Quartet cellist Rohan de Saram to illustrate how it is possible to create music of intensity without requiring too much volume. This was particularly the case in Matthias Pintscher’s Figura V / Assonanza, a response to the late sculpture of Giacometti. One could sense the outline of the structures being traced through wispy, semi-defined sounds, and when Simonsen ended with the bow on the bridge, the thick, slightly murky sound was followed by complete silence.
This was followed by Berio’s final work in the Sequenza series, though Sequenza XIV could almost have been for two protagonists, so wide ranging are its sounds. The cello is employed initially as imitator of the Sri Lankan ‘Kandyan’ drum, with Simonsen tapping and knocking a propulsive rhythm on the cello. As the bow gradually assumes greater importance the cellist played Berio’s passages of growing fervour with real intensity, and when the drumming returned it was a fitting close to a piece perfected by the composer in its third version.
A substantial partita followed the interval in the form of Lyell Creswell’s Atta, for solo cello. Using the Old Norse word for ‘eight’, the 25-minute work immediately made a statement of intent with the tight double stopping of an intense ‘Con fuoco’ movement. Through the eight sections we glimpsed humourous asides, unexpectedly tender passages in the third ‘Con tenerezza’ section and a vibrato-rich sound for the ‘Con anima’ sixth. As Simonsen built this set of character portraits, written in response to the paintings of Maurizio Bottarelli, she conveyed its strong sense of structure, thematic interest and atmosphere. Having used quiet harmonics to create a keen atmosphere, Simonsen set forward with considerable purpose in the finale, ‘Con forza’ – its momentum taking it towards a sensation of a real culmination. Technically the cellist was excellent throughout.
A light-hearted close to the concert came in the form of Paul Patterson’s Diversions for saxophone quartet, a 15-minute, three-movement work gaining inspiration from different forms of wind. While there was nothing to relate to the extremely cold wind outside on the River Thames, there was a breezy first movement of crisp ensemble interplay, the melodic subjects rather like leaves blowing in the gusty gale, while a slightly Bluesy second movement found a tinge of melancholy in Schaller’s beautiful alto solo. Finally ‘Sea Breeze’ was clever and humorous in its back-to-front take on “Royal Britannia”, its off-beat variations and extended harmonies setting the tune in a fresh and funny context. Patterson was in the audience to acknowledge a musically inspiring end to a substantial programme.