SEQUENZA Launch Concert (Royal Academy of Music, 23 October)

Brandenburg Concerto No.3
Points on the curve to find… *
Broken, black [World premiere]
Concerto in E flat for chamber orchestra (Dumbarton Oaks)

Daniel Browell (piano) *

Philip Venables

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 23 October, 2003
Venue: Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London

The name SEQUENZA honours Luciano Berio. It is a chamber orchestra drawing on London’s four major music conservatories, aiming to specialise in “exciting music of the last 100 years”.

For SEQUENZA’s launch, the glittering assortment of instruments included strings, piano, harpsichord and celesta; e-flat clarinets, bass clarinets, alto flute, piccolo, tenor and alto saxophones, tuba and contrabassoon.

Essentially, Berio’s Points on a curve to find… is serial music with a playful, discursive piano continuum. Twelve pitches arranged in a fixed order are re-stated ten times – starting at a different place in the sequence each time and emphasising different notes. Also, subsets of the original sequence appear, modified. Orchestral instruments detail the emphases and variations.

SEQUENZA played all this intricacy superbly. Placed amidst the other instruments, Daniel Browell’s piano, with the largest part, was not always audible. To me, in this auditorium, the music’s chief interest lay in strings, woodwind and brass.

Rightly, Philip Venables chose a moderate speed. The music had space to breathe. As a result, individual instrumentalists had time to place their sparing individual contributions – often a single note – accurately and tellingly. Nor did the piano’s flurrying susurrations ever hurry. This was music-making of great accuracy and precision. I greatly enjoyed, too, some unexpected combinations: tuba and celesta at one point, and rasping brass with equally rasping lower strings at another.

Philip Venables’s own Broken, black ran the Berio a close second. Programme notes point to an “unrelenting” aggression and a “short, whispering motoric figure from the strings”, after which the brass resume their punchy “interventions” propelling the piece towards “a broad and relentless melody”.

Dark bass-clarinets opened the piece. Later the tuba paired off with the contrabassoon. A trio of flutes was lighter and gentler. Venables offered us selected, pinpointed instrumental blocks and arresting, varying overall sonorities. Ultimately, the pace of the piece was set by the strings – bouncy and busy, but in no hurry to get anywhere. Had Venables set any other pace, Broken, black would have sagged or skeltered. The violins particularly caught the jauntiness exactly. This struck me as the work of a man of humour assuming a tone of seriousness, teasingly.

I therefore looked forward to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks – music from a similar stable. Not all the instrumentalists caught the pulse and springiness of Stravinsky’s particular idiom, though. The violins didn’t (not until the third movement); but the violas did, exactly and delightfully. The bassoon and clarinets did too; the flutes didn’t.

Brandenburg 3 sounded precise, barely phrased and rushed – the current practice. The final movement’s brilliance shone. A word of warning, though: phrase punctuation at this rapid speed led to ragged re-entries. What’s the remedy? A martinet’s drilling or a pulse-based step?

These niggles apart, SEQUENZA is a virtuoso ensemble to watch out for. It has enthusiasm, professionalism and already produces an arresting sound.

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