Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble/Elgar Howarth – Birtwistle, Masing, Stravinsky & Varèse

Hoquetus Petrus
Bach, arr. Birtwistle
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 – Contrapunctus XII & Contrapunctus XVII
(who are like ocean patient) [world premiere]
Three Pieces for String Quartet
Silbury Air

Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble [Alena Lugovkina & Samantha Pearce (flutes, piccolos and alto flute), Caroline Adie (oboe), Anna Hashimoto (clarinets & bass clarinet), Sinead Frost (bassoon & contra bassoon), Estefania Beceiro (horn), Dmitrios Gkogkas (trumpet & piccolo trumpet), Simon Minshall (bass trumpet), Zebedee Tonkin (trombone), Barnaby Archer (percussion), Nika Shirocorad (piano), Akiko Iwaki (harp), Ola Lindseth & Anna Ovsyanikova (violins), Robert Arnes (viola) & Miguel Fernandes (cello), and Adam Wynter (double bass)]
Elgar Howarth

Reviewed by: Bob Briggs

Reviewed: 20 November, 2009
Venue: Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London

When I was a student, and Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934) was about 13 years into what has become a very distinguished career, the very idea of apprentices tackling a piece of his (Verses for Ensembles would have fitted that description) was simply beyond our wildest imaginings. 40 years later it would be unusual if a student group didn’t get to grips with his music.

This Royal Academy of Music concert showed many different sides to this endlessly fascinating composer’s character. We started with humour, the fun derived from hocketing, the passing of melody from one group of instruments to another. Hoquetus Petrus (1995) is an enjoyable romp written for the Chicago Symphony and one hopes its members had as much fun playing it as did Alena Lugovkina, Samantha Pearce and Dmitrios Gkogkas. However, the two selections from J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, arranged by Birtwistle for string quartet, felt laboured in execution, the players seemingly somewhat adrift with them.

Cortège (2007) was written for the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall. Following from the intense Ritual Fragment, written in memory of Michael Vyner, artistic director of the London Sinfonietta, this work considers material in a similar way with soloists emerging from the texture and being drawn back into it. A typical Sinfonietta line-up of two quintets – strings and wind – with bass trumpet, piano and a percussionist play a never-ending tapestry of sound and one by one, all but for the ripieno of cello, double bass and piano, and the bass-drum timekeeper, come forward individually to deliver a continual melody. By the end the quintet from the left is sitting on the right and vice versa. Cortège has much in common with Ritual Fragment, not least the intense drama and mourning quality of the music; this is as fine a piece as Birtwistle has written, for it contains everything one expects from him – the grand gesture, a quest for some kind of musical Holy Grail and an intensity which he takes to the very edge of delirium, but he never pushes us over, as many a less experienced composer might do.

Silbury Air provided the only really fast music of the evening. After some soft breathing sounds on strings the momentum gets going and stays there. This is a fascinating score, the ensemble encompassing cor anglais, bass clarinet and double bassoon as well as a multifarious percussion section, and even though there is the occasional impression, mainly from the winds and brass, that we are again in some kind of procession this notion is swept away by rushing strings and interjections from harp and piano. The is a beautiful piece, richly and imaginatively scored, which this performance unlocked.

Little need be said about the Stravinsky and Varèse works except to say that they still shock and infuriate, nearly a century after their composition – and these performances, especially the Varèse, were excellent, with the most resplendent and exciting brass-playing.

The new work, (who are like ocean patient) (from e e cummings), by Elo Masing (born 1984) has much to commend it. Starting with the brass-players simply blowing through their instruments – the only real miscalculation in an otherwise fine score – for it took some time for the music to start but when it did it was worth the wait. The pulse was slow (I sometimes wonder if composition students shouldn’t be forced to write a ten-minute scherzo) but Masing used her chosen instruments with great care, drawing out the lines and painting a brief, too brief, canvas laden with very good things, the woodwind-writing especially. But what was most impressive here was a young composer writing real music and not hiding it behind a barrage of percussion.

The performances were very fine indeed, and under Birtwistle-specialist Elgar Howarth they positively glowed with excitement, the Manson Ensemble playing with authority – exactly what Willie Manson’s parents wanted when the group was created. Willie Manson was born in Dunedin, on the south island of New Zealand, in 1896. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and was acclaimed but he was killed in action during the First World War. His parents gave money to the RAH in order for the Manson Ensemble to be created and it is at the forefront of the Academy’s new-music performances.

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