Ricordi 200 - Beyond Music : Works by Sciarrino, Donatoni, Lim, Poppe.

Elision Ensemble

King’s Place, 26 November 2008 4.5 stars

RicordiThe music publishing house Ricordi celebrates 200 years of new music promotion and publication this year, and to mark the occasion they have organised a series of concerts around the world. In London two celebratory recitals honour the bicentenary. The first of these, given in partnership with the leading Australian group the Elision Ensemble, took place last night at the resplendent King's Place concert hall. The second is pencilled in for February 24th of next year at the same venue, and will feature the Fidelio Trio.

The concert was an intimate affair. Six of the seven works in the programme were solos for various instruments, with the other being a duet for cello and clarinet in A. The music was from a selection of esteemed Ricordi composers (somewhat) old and new, and it included three recent works by the Australian Liza Lim, one from Enno Poppe, two from Franco Donatoni, and finally the acknowledged masterpiece of modern violin repertoire, Sciarrino's Sei Capricci ('76). The cosy dimensions of the venue- Hall Two of the self-styled 'creative centre'- also aided this intimacy, and the hall’s crisp and adequately warm acoustics were especially valuable considering the repertoire. The warm and receptive capacity crowd (which was in the tens rather the hundreds) filled out the setting well.

Two performances by Tristram Williams on solo trumpet book ended the evening. He inaugurated proceedings in virtuosic, almost picaresque fashion with Liza Lim's Wild Winged-One (2007), a piece that is a 'resetting' of some material from Lim's opera The Navigator. Lim is a composer who works with post-spectral extended techniques within a force field of renewed, visceral modernism, and in the three works heard in this concert from her pen, a fertile facility with sound clearly announced itself.

The Wild Winged-One spends less time considering the materials of sound as it does on a slightly abstract dialectic of various different voices, embodied by different modes of attack and articulation on the trumpet such as breathing sounds, glissandi, and microtones. As such it was a less engaging experience than her later works turned out to be, but it nevertheless provided an interesting opening, especially given the performer's verve. That verve carried over into the concluding piece of the evening, Donatoni's comedic slapstick Short ('88), a composition in which the trumpet player explores the sound potential of various motifs as heard through plunger and harmon mutes. The theatrical display required by the work was confidently bestowed by Williams, who seemed to revel in its dry utilisation of a very limited gestural canvass.

Graeme Jennings, formerly second violinist with the Arditti Quartet, gave two utterly masterful performances, one of Sciarrino's aforementioned Sei Capricci, and the other Donatoni's Ciglio ('89). The second of these two works is (as is typical for the composer) a relentless working through of differentiated materials, each in their own sound blocks that are sometimes joined, and sometimes separated through a fragmentation of the form. Jenning’s dispatched this slight but attractively dynamic work with consumate ease. His performance of the Sciarrino set was beguiling from first to last. His sensitive bowing in the first Capriccio brought out a great deal of tonal richness from the instrument, and his delicate handling of the flautando high harmonics in the second choreographed a dance of the most evocative microtones in the audience's ears. The bowing and finger work throughout were bewildering in their accuracy, and yet Jennings never let his palpable technique obviate the consistent strain of character and coherent narrative he was carving out within the performance. In the sixth of the set, the con brio, Jennings stacked mementos of each of the preceding movements against each other in a feverishly exciting dance towards the finish, which he brought off with élan. The concluding gesture, a bare striking of the four open strings of the violin, speaks clearly of the extent to which Sciarrino achieved a reinvigoration from first principles of the instrument's potential as a modern sounding device.

Elision Ensemble

Two of the other works on the programme were from Liza Lim, and each in its own way imbued the evening with an elegiac aspect, with a depth of emotion, it might have been without were it not for these works. The solo clarinet piece Sonorous Body (2007) is a ten minute oration taken again from her opera,. It is centred around an intense sort of introspection that explodes intermittently into passages of unrest, and dense gestural concentration. Richard Haynes gave a hypnotic reading of this work that was as powerful in its way as Jennings’ performance of the Sciarrino set had been. The clarinettist's rich, sonorous tone, his clear command of the difficult technical challenges of the terrain (including peaks of circular breathing and multiphonic emoting), and his ultimately affecting passage through the obscure architecture of the work all added up to a brilliant interpretation. He was equally strong when paired with the rich tones of the cellist Séverine Ballon in Lim's earlier piece Inguz (’96), where the tension and emotional resonance of the music is derived from the timbre and profile of each musician gradually running in and out of the other's. The two performers made an enrapturing shadow play of subjectivities out of the music.

Ballon's precipitous performance of Enno Poppe's energetic, highly recreative piece Herz (which grows relentlessly over about 13 minutes from a small rising triplet figure given at the start into a rapturous passion), had earlier closed the first half of the concert. The piece is not particularly profound but Ballon’s powerful performance made it appealing- at times the spectacle became more about her physical engagement with the movements required of her than it was about the actual notes- and in the end the force of the music stayed true to the finish. Overall this was an evening of high quality music making that refreshingly focused exclusively on works from the very recent past, a policy thankfully being maintained into the second of these Ricordi concerts in February.

By Stephen Graham