Cage Cardew Skempton Feldman

First Construction (in Metal)
Bun No.1 [London premiere]
Piano and Orchestra [London premiere]

John Tilbury (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Ilan VolkovThis late-night Prom offered one of the season’s most interesting programmes, not only on account of its content. Above all, it marked the appearance of Cornelius Cardew’s music at these concerts for the first time in virtually four decades though, inevitably, in a vastly different cultural context.

Thirty-nine years ago, a performance of ‘Paragraph 1’ from Cardew’s The Great Learning could only go ahead after its ideological content had been removed. However, anyone anticipating similar provocation on this occasion would have been disappointed, for Bun No.1 (1965) comes from a period when the composer was still grappling – however equivocally – with the issues thrown up by the European avant-garde rather than repudiating them out of hand. Completed while he was still at work on Treatise, his vast compendium of graphic indeterminacy, the present piece has its antecedents in music from the outset of the 1960s and may not have come about had it not been an assignment during Cardew’s period of study in Rome with Goffredo Petrassi. Interesting, then, that for all its deployment of the gamut of advanced compositional techniques, it most closely resembles the contemporaneous work of Bruno Maderna – creatively and ideologically the least doctrinaire among the post-war generation of Italian composers – in the unforced though never directionless unfolding of its musical events as well as its embrace of the widest range of timbre and texture to an unashamedly pleasurable degree.

This was certainly the impression left by this account, in which Ilan Volkov steered a convincing trajectory through the 18-minute whole – its six continuous sections coalescing into three larger portions whose semblance of a ‘thesis-antithesis-dialectic’ format might be the work’s only political connotation – and drew a persuasive response from the BBC Scottish forces. Cardew (1936-81) himself would most likely have baulked at its revival, yet the success of the work as regards both conception and execution surely outweighs that of its societal value as would not have been the case in past times.

The remainder of the concert served to reinforce the extent to which those composers and music once deemed ‘experimental’ have been absorbed into the creative mainstream. A one-time disciple of Cardew, Howard Skempton has ploughed a distinctive furrow in which lucidity and economy are both salutary correctives to his mentor’s latter-day ideological immersion – not least when applied to the medium of the orchestra as in Lento (1990). Only the relative marginalisation of classical music as an ongoing creative endeavour in the UK could have prevented a work of such archetypal expression from assuming the same significance as Barber’s Adagio held for an earlier generation. Fleet and even impulsive, Volkov’s reading made it more akin to ‘Andante con moto’, yet the inevitability with which it evolved and the spatial sense drawn from its terraced dynamics were fully in accord with its spirit.

Framing these two pieces were works by American composers taken from very different stages of their respective evolution. While not the first instance of percussion-only music. John Cage’s First Construction (in Metal), from 1939, is a milestone in the way that it combines the mathematical logic of its unfolding with a panache in the way that it sounds; qualities well to the fore in this performance, Volkov giving the percussion sextet its head before effecting a deft course through a coda in which the music’s formal symmetry is abandoned and its elemental force allowed to disperse into silence.

All of which could not have found greater contrast than in Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra (1975) which ended the evening. The gradual ‘becoming known’ of this composer has led to the realisation that it includes a body of orchestral works well suited to concert presentation given an appropriate context, not least among them the half-dozen concertante pieces that run across Feldman’s output from the 1970s and of which the present work is as representative as any. It helped that, in John Tilbury, this performance had the most self-effacing yet sensitively attuned of soloists: one able to place the discreet chords and speculative gestures of the piano part so that it became integrated into the spare though unfailingly resourceful orchestral-writing with absolute sureness in music that, in implying more than need be stated, typified the thinking behind this fascinating concert as a whole.

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