Shaker Loops (First movement)
Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Popcorn Superhet Receiver [World premiere]
Bartók (arr. Willner)
L’Ascension Prière du Christ montant vers son Père
Walker/Stott (arr. Ziegler)
It’s Raining Today
Jane Chapman (harpsichord)
Pete Whyman (tenor saxophone)
BBC Concert Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 23 April, 2005
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London
Jonny Greenwood’s tenure as Composer in Residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra got off to a diverting start here with Popcorn Superhet Receiver. Inspired by memories of childhood journeys in the parental car, with the sound of a limited selection of cassettes merging into the noise of the engine so one effectively became the other, this was a substantial (19-minute) piece in three main sections. Building gradually through the juxtaposition of ‘white noise’ and chorale-like harmonies, the first section was a reminder of Greenwood’s predilection for the texture music of early Penderecki, while the central episode employed layers of pizzicato and col legno to create a menacing atmosphere. The final section rather suggested Xenakis in its volatile dynamic profile and ‘wide angle’ glissandi, such as ensured that the work reached its close on a powerful emotional apex.
As in the works featured at the London Sinfonietta’s latest Ether event, there was a real sense of Greenwood wearing his influences openly and without apology, while maximising their expressive potential through the engaging nature of his ideas. His new work found an appropriate context in the programme as a whole: one containing equal numbers of modern and, if you will, post-modern classics.
Into the former category come Carl Ruggles’s Portals (1927), a densely-wrought span of polyphony in which the composer’s trademark ‘dissonant counterpoint’ opens up to invigorating effect, and two harpsichord pieces by Ligeti. The scintillating aural illusion that is Continuum (1968) is about as far removedfrom the witty syncopation of Hungarian Rock (1978) as both are typical of an endlessly resourceful composer, and were dispatched with gusto by Jane Chapman. Whatever the outward disjunctiveness of Ligeti’s idiom, its debt to Bartók is both profound and ongoing, and it was good to have the latter’s pithy Rumanian Dances (1917) – in an invigorating string arrangement by Arthur Willner – opening the second half. This also featured the concluding movement of Messiaen’s early cycle L’Ascension (1932), a raptly expressive ascent into ethereal realms such as was refined in subsequent works.
Into the post-modern category come John Adams’s Shaker Loops (1978), the Minimalist drive of whose opening movement provided an energetic launch into the evening, and Arvo Pärt’s mesmeric Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977) – surely the most unlikely tribute a major composer has ever inspired. Chapman returned for Henryk Gorecki’s Harpsichord Concerto (1980) – a work roundly booed at an early London outing, but whose starkly circling harmonies and rhythmic clichés now seems akin to Minimalist Poulenc. A suite drawn from Bernard Herrmann’s music to the Alfred Hitchcock-classic “Psycho” (1960) ended the evening: essentially the main ideas played as a ten-minute sequence, but one which captured both the menace and unpredictability of Herrmann’s inspiration with a sure touch.
Before that item, however, came the other premiere of the evening: two Scott Walker songs, drawn from his classic ballad collection “Scott 3” (1969), and, in the absence of scores, transcribed from the original recordings by conductor Robert Ziegler so the delicacy and emotional depth of Wally Stott’s arrangements were tellingly conveyed. Having abandoned live performance in 1978, it is highly unlikely that Walker will be heard singing these numbers again. Rather than emulate his inimitable vocals, the melody line was entrusted to the tenor saxophone of Pete Whyman – who gave a caressing account of “It’s Raining Today” and decorated that of “Rosemary” with due appreciation of its expressive nuance.
Performances throughout were responsive to the music at hand – a trifle headlong in the Ruggles and a little rhythmically unyielding in the Messiaen, perhaps – while more than confirming the across-the-board versatility of the BBC Concert Orchestra. Its next such evening is to be keenly anticipated – and if it should include a couple more Scott Walker realisations (how about “Boy Child”, or “Farmer in the City”?) alongside Greenwood’s next opus, so much the better.