Il rozzo martello
Champ-Contrechamp [BBC commission: world premiere]
Angel Fighter [UK premiere]
Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Andrew Watts (countertenor) & Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 20 August, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
Although only four in number, the Proms Saturday Matinees are among the most enterprising programmes of this year’s BBC Proms season. This one again featured the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Singers were added to tackle Peter Maxwell Davies’s Il rozzo martello (1997) with conviction. Setting texts by Dante and Michelangelo, the piece focuses on the idea of creativity in which the ‘crude hammer’ of the title becomes the creative dynamic: reflected in its seamless progress from plainchant-like simplicity to polyphonic intricacy, yet without sacrificing an underlying expressive austerity.
Contrast aplenty with Georges Aperghis’s Champ-Contrechamp (2010), receiving its first performance. Greek-born but long domiciled in Paris, Aperghis has attracted only passing attention this side of the Channel – not least because the theatrical works for which he is best known inhabit a humorous yet disquieting world which does not easily translate literally or in spirit. Qualities equally to the fore in the present work, in which the film techniques of ‘cut’ and ‘jump-cut’ referred to by the title effect a dialogue that ranges from the playful to the malevolent in a way that brought Aperghis’s Italian contemporary Salvatore Sciarrino to mind – not least the final stages in which a tangible brinkmanship between soloist and orchestra seems ready to implode. That it does not is doubtless intended, while also a tribute to the pianism of Nicolas Hodges – for whom the term ‘grace under pressure’ might have been invented – and the collective poise of the London Sinfonietta and David Atherton.
More overtly serious matters were to the fore in Harrison Birtwistle’s Angel Fighter (2010), a commission from the Leipzig Festival which took the form – appropriately enough – of a cantata for soloists, choir and chamber orchestra such as Bach might have recognised at least in its constituents. Speaking beforehand, Birtwistle mentioned Jacob wrestling with the Angel as an image that had long occupied his thoughts and which is given musical representation as the visceral climax of a half-hour span which takes in arias for both protagonists as well as a highly varied role for the chorus; the whole underpinned by an instrumental component replete with gestures central to Birtwistle’s idiom for near on half-a-century. Stephen Plaice’s text – always provocative while not without its racy touches – was rarely less than audible, not least through the singing of Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Andrew Watts, who projected Jacob’s imperiousness and the Angel’s hieratic splendour with the required fervency. The BBC Singers and the Sinfonietta responded with alacrity to David Atherton, whose advocacy of Birtwistle’s music goes back to the start of his professional career and whose London appearances are nowadays as infrequent as they are welcome. This was an impressive conclusion to a varied and absorbing concert.