fracture/fissure

ELISION ensemble

King's Place, May 1 2009 3.5 stars

Severine BallonAustralia's ELISION ensemble have long been associated with British composers, Richard Barrett in particular. Through regular performances on these shores, and several valuable recording projects, this relationship continues to thrive. The group will visit London once again in November.

On Tuesday last at King's Place the group gave a concert celebrating that association. They gave us older British works from the eighties and nineties, alongside newer pieces from the last few years, including a premiere from Barrett. Seven works were played in all, with four of the ensemble’s musicians spreading the load of solos and small group performances between them. The concert was united by the great technical dexterity required through each of the works, though the skill of each of the performers in turn ensured that an emotional and dramatic frisson imbued the furious note-bashings.

Peter Veale gave an extraordinarily charged performance of Roger Redgate's Ausgangspunkte for solo oboe. Through the course of the work Veale described an arc of further and further expansiveness in the span of the material, which paralleled an ever more frightening turning inwards. Virtuosity here was key, both in compositional and performing terms, and in Veale the catatonic tenor of the music found an ideal partner. Similar marriages of extreme technical detail with powerful instrumental expertise framing impressive emotional commitments to the music, were evident in Séverine Ballon's reading of Dillon's Parjanya-vata for solo cello, and in the always impressive Richard Haynes' performance of Barrett's vigorous and febrile Knospend bespatter, for C clarinet. Ballon's wide palette of techniques were put to excellent use here-her plucking at the bridge, her fortissimo playing of harmonics, and her nimble glissandi runs all impressed-whilst Haynes' detailed and expressive playing brought real life to the score.

Aaron Cassidy was the youngest composer to feature here. Though his works deal equally in complex extended techniques in performance, they are cut from rather a different cloth to the others on the programme. The Crutch of Memory, for indeterminate solo string instrument (here performed with flavour and commitment by Graeme Jennings on violin), notates the body's contact with the instrument, its precise movements up and down and around the fingerboard. Exactitude of pitch is foregone in favour of an explicit engagement with the ergonomics of performance, and with the theatre that brings. It is thus something of a different thrill one feels as a spectator; visceral feelings corresponding to the embodied intensity of the performance characterised my experience.

HaynesHis Being itself a catastrophe, the diagram must not create a catastrophe, worked less well. It again leaves some aspects open to performers; here it seemed the interactions of Veale and Haynes (on cor anglais, oboe and musette, and Bb, Eb and bass clarinets respectively) were conditioned by a program in which they were free to control timings of phrase endings and entries. The work aimed for a sort of dialogic theatre of the absurd in which stopping and starting intensity and passion held together an overriding ironical tone, but the arrangement grew tiresome quickly enough. Ballon gave another impressive solo performance, this time of Barrett's fractured von hinter dem schmerz, where scordatura gave the cello an unusual character and weight. Across the three distinct sections, Ballon’s flexible musicality shot conviction through her performance. The concert closed with Haynes (Eb clarinet), Ballon and Veale (cor anglais) accompanying Jennings on solo violin in a performance of Barrett’s Wound. The work was written only in March (it is the first in a projected series of five movements for violin with increasingly large ensembles), and as such the assurance of the playing, and of the writing, was all the more impressive. The curvature and saltiness of the music enriched this performance, with the sometimes aligned, sometimes opposed ensemble, clearly at ease within Barrett’s world after an evening of high class music making around and about its stark and yet expressive frontiers.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Séverine Ballon, Richard Haynes

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