Prom 41: 20th August 2001 – Late Night Sinfonietta

Chorale Variations on ’Vom Himmel hoch’**
Canticum sacrum* **
Polla ta dhina**
Kenneth Hesketh
The Circling Canopy of Night
Symphony No.1

Christopher Gillett (tenor)*
David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone)*
London Sinfonietta Chorus**

London Sinfonietta conducted by Oliver Knussen

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Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Taking on a late-night Prom this season, Oliver Knussen came up with an enterprising, if oddly constituted programme which served several commemorative purposes.

The exception to this was Kenneth Hesketh’s The Circling Canopy of Night, the final part of his trilogy, Trinità. Those who’ve followed Hesketh’s career will need no reminding of his sophisticated use of timbre and his formal sense. Scored for an ensemble rich in bell-like sonorities, this 24-minute work passes through three continuous sections in its evoking of the harmonious medieval concept of the universe. As previously, consistency of melodic profile does not preclude such expressive markers as the horn theme that metamorphoses across the central section, or the three-note chord that concludes the work in airy transcendence. Hesketh’s next compositional move is to be anticipated.

The 30th anniversary of Stravinsky’s death was appropriately marked by two late works, in the reassessment of which Knussen has been a prime mover. The ’Chorale Variations’ put Bach’s Christmas missive through its canonic paces with, in most cases, the chorale itself passing blithely across the face of the activity. The bracing harmonic astringency is paralleled by its companion piece – now as in 1956 – the Canticum sacrum.

Written for performance in St. Mark’s basilica in Venice, the(serially-derived) tonal austerity and symmetrical rigour of this ’sacred song’ are balanced by its antiphonal richness and diversity of scoring, including Stravinsky’s only use of the organ in the verses between the settings of the three virtues which form the large-scale central movement. The expression is a judicious amalgam of influences, Gesualdo and Webern among them, which the composer was steeped in at the time, resulting in innately Stravinskian music whose stylistic imitators have invariably failed to match in substance.

Xenakis, who died in January, enjoyed a close association with the London Sinfonietta over two decades of creativity. Although Polla ta dina dates back to 1962, this brief setting of Sophocles’s ironic perspective on the nature of Man encapsulates the visceral qualities that were central to Xenakis’s expressive armoury. Moreover, the pungent syllabic word treatment is a mainstay of his later choral work, a significant and underrated part ofhis output.

After last Prom season’s UK premiere of the intense Ninth Symphony, it was a neat touch to mark Henze’s 75th birthday with his first designated symphonic essay. Written in 1947 and revised sixteen years later, this modest but revealing work is likely to be of more interest now than at its Proms premiere back in1981. Then, the creative synthesis of Henze’s final period was recently underway. Now, its fruitful contradiction between modernism and tradition seems neatly outlined in this work’s uncertain juxtaposition of Stravinskian economy and Bergian expressivity, with the Italianate pastoral overtones of the central ’Notturno’ as uncanny as they were instinctive. Henze’s subsequent path could hardly be described as untroubled: the creative dichotomy may well begin here.

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