Windows on Eternity

Dark Crossing
Windows on Eternity [London Sinfonietta commission: World premiere]
In the Distances of Sleep [European premiere]
Colin Matthews
Two Part Invention

Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano)

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 March, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

A well-planned evening of commissions and revivals from the London Sinfonietta, led off by a timely revisiting of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Dark Crossing (2000). Three ensemble studies that might also be seascapes and which, more importantly, are both a summary of the composer’s musical idiom at the close of the 1990s and a template for where it has been heading so far this decade. This is also music in which texture and sonority per se play an audibly greater role in his thinking than hitherto, while the restrained intensity of the whole only adds to its pervasive sense of imaginative free-play. This performance, making the most of its calm but often-sombre translucency, reinforced the feeling this is a work whose overall significance in Turnage’s output has yet to be recognised.

The success of his realisation of Elgar’s sketches for his Third Symphony might well have detracted from Anthony Payne’s own compositional achievements. Certainly Windows on Eternity (2007) is as gripping and assured a piece as any that he has written – its alternation of animated ‘spiritoso’ music and seemingly uneventful ‘adagio’ passages generating the work’s intensity, and one that prevails during the fragmentary coda, is distinctive not only in itself buy also for the cumulative momentum that it generates. How far this process evokes the transcendence implied by the title is for each listener to judge: what is undoubted is that Payne has reconciled the nominally competing ‘English’ and ‘European’ facets of his musical thinking with a self-effacing mastery matched by few others of his generation.

The work received a confident premiere under Oliver Knussen, who went on to give the first European outing for Elliott Carter’s latest song-cycle. “In the Distances of Sleep” (2006) sees a return to the voice-and-chamber orchestra format for the first time in a quarter-century, while the setting of poems by Wallace Stevens is something Carter has long contemplated. If that of “Puella Parvula”, which opens the cycle, feels the least successful, this is more to do with the poem’s likely resistance to musical treatment than the with conviction of the music – which initiates a sequence diverse in character and scoring, and one that culminates in a setting of “God is Good: It Is a Beautiful Night” as raptly expressive as anything to be found in Carter’s still-expanding oeuvre. Music, moreover, that is well suited to the darkly sonorous mezzo of Jane Irwin, whose identity with the piece was undoubted.

Concluding the concert, Colin Matthews’s Two Part Invention (1988) seemed disappointing – not least because the contrast between its rhythmically hectic, even aggressive first half and its melodically sustained successor was too pronounced for an overriding coherence to come through. Furthermore, Matthews has written more purposefully virtuoso music elsewhere, as he has for solo cello in both of his concertos for that instrument – which is not to decry the musicianship of Timothy Gill in his exacting concertante role during the work’s second part, or the London Sinfonietta in bringing off the work at the end of a typically demanding and rewarding concert.

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