The Rest is Noise – Barbara Hannigan, Reinbert de Leeuw, Harriet Walter & London Sinfonietta – Satie & Stravinsky

Three Pieces for string quartet
Three Pieces for clarinet
Concertino for string quartet

Barbara Hannigan (soprano) & Reinbert de Leeuw (piano) [Socrate]

Jonathan Morton & Joan Atherton (violins), Paul Silverthorne (viola) & Tim Gill (cello)

Timothy Lines (clarinets)

Daniel Norman & Edgaras Montvidas (tenors) and Roderick Williams & John Malloy (basses)
London Sinfonietta
Barbara Hannigan [Renard]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 February, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Southbank Centre’s festival of twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise, continued with a host of concerts and events predominantly centred on Paris – with the London Sinfonietta’s contribution bringing together starkly contrasted compositions from around the First World War by Satie and Stravinsky.

Barbara Hannigan. Photograph: Elmet de HaasEven now that the extent of Erik Satie’s musical output has become relatively well established, the very existence of a piece such as Socrate (1919) can still come as a shock – its almost ascetic restraint seeming far removed from the frivolities and provocations of his theatrical works from this period. Yet a ‘spiritual’ aspect had been present in the composer’s thinking since his earliest piano pieces over three decades before, and this work is essentially a distillation of those more inward tendencies – couched in an idiom both subtle and refined. Whether in the initial ‘Portrait of Socrates’ with its emotional restraint, the equally subdued evocation of his teaching in the central ‘On the Banks of the Illissus’, or the gradually (but never cumulatively) unfolding interplay of arioso and ostinato in the final ‘The Death of Socrates’, Barbara Hannigan gave a rendition of chaste eloquence, while any regret that the ensemble version was not used was quickly vanquished by Reinbert de Leeuw’s insight into a piano part which infers much more than it states; a memorable performance.

If the Stravinsky items were less absorbing, this is largely because the music is more familiar in terms of performance and its artistry. That said, the string quartet drawn from the London Sinfonietta did seek to ring the interpretative changes in the composer’s two main works for the medium – though whether either the third of the Three Pieces (1914) or the central section of the Concertino (1920) benefited from a leavening of ‘folk’ intonation in some of the most abstract music from Stravinsky’s Russian period is debatable. In between, Timothy Lines gave a lucid account of the Three Pieces (1919) for clarinet that, for all their brevity, afford a reduction of Stravinsky’s then practice to its absolute essence.

The decade following the onset of war saw Stravinsky evolving his theatrical instincts along various and intriguing lines. If not the most significant such piece, Renard (1916) is arguably the most immediately appealing – a pantomimic fusion of dance and song in which the Russian folktale is not so much enacted as sent up. A piece, too, that those of a certain age most likely came to know through performances by the Sinfonietta, of which this one was exemplary in the precision of its ensemble and astringency of its soundworld (not least the crucial contribution from cimbalom). All four of the vocalists were admirably attuned to their roles, with the wheedling ‘give and take’ between the tenors matched by the ironic pathos of the basses. As conductor, Hannigan proved adept in music that can easily fall a victim to its rhythmic consistency – ensuring that the dialogue passages had an intensifying pathos such as offset those ‘chase and retribution’ sequences which follow them, with the march that frames the whole rendered with the right degree of deadpan jollity.

Both main works would never have existed save for the commissioning zeal of Winnaretta Singer – later the Princesse Edmond de Polignac – whose memoires, ably realised by Timberlake Wertenbaker, prefaced each piece as thoughtfully presented by Harriet Walter. So often such ‘extra-musical’ introductions fall flat, but here was an undoubted exception.

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