Proms 27/33: London Sinfonietta at the Proms

Hind, Constable, Wass, Poster, London Sinfonietta/Atherton and Gardner

Royal Albert Hall, 10 August 2009 3.5 stars 4 stars

Harrison BirtwistleThe London Sinfonietta visited the Proms twice over the past week — their only dates in the 2009 schedule — for two concerts that showed off the diversity of their practice and the brilliance of their talent.

The first date, a late-night concert that incongruously but interestingly followed the BBC NOW and Thierry Fischer Mendelssohn Prom, was a celebration of Harrison Birtwistle's 75th birthday. Birtwistle and the Sinfonietta have shared a long and fruitful history; the ensemble have premiered no less than 22 of his works, including the three that were presented in reverse chronology in this concert.

With the composer in attendance and as evidenced in the pre-concert talk clearly still enamoured by the capabilities of the Sinfonietta, and also excited by their co-founder David Atherton returning to lead the performance, expectations were high for a rewarding survey of some of the best of Birtwistle's instrumental music. As it turned out, a robust Atherton steered the ensemble on a precise course through the three deeply unified scores, a course that was somewhat lacking in the most vivid colours and shapes only because of the swamping nature of the venue.

In each work Birtwistle's (still) abiding concern for proto-and-para-minimalist formal gestures, and a more prickly-Dixieland approach to texture, shone through. The tumbling and skewering repetitions of each cell of rhythmically driven material convince because of the deliberate way in which they are handled by the composer; the mechanistic aspect of Birtwistle's music is always oiled by a keen dynamic, formal, and teleologic sense.

The six 'mechanisms' of 1978's Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum, for example, are rotated and played with in such a way as to push the music onwards, and also to assert and augment the varying emotional capacities of the score, from bitterness to irony to repose to acidity and so on. Atherton was keen to bring the audience on this journey with the players, and so in addition to his sharp way with the phrasing and articulation, he drew the differing panels of music into and out of each other in ways that deepened the sense of composure underlying the madness of the score's surfaces. As the hidden repetitions thrillingly became explicit repetitions towards the end, more evidence of the composer's deep skill with weight and structure, the initial timidity of the performance (this big music requires a big performance, particularly in such a cavernous space as this), modulated into a zealous machining.

Silbury Air was even more impressive. The work uses similar techniques, but here they are cloaked in more of a surface enigma. A euphoria of sound in the initial stages give way to a sputtering out of the clockwork in the winds, before a shocking final conclusion (Birtwistle's rhetorical gifts again coming to the fore) where thunderstruck drums offset darkening clarinets and flutes. The players again showed a remarkable facility for the tough and raw-boned expression of the music, particularly the spotlighted winds, who danced through their chaotic mantras.

The closing Verses for Ensemble is one of the composer's most important early works, further establishing and solidifying his reputation as it did after Punch and Judy in 1968-69. The candour of Birtwistle's forms and language was made explicit in this work, with each formal transition being matched by a corresponding movement of one or two or a group of musicians around the stage. This ritual-theatrical aspect, though tight in this performance, never quite felt as inevitable (pace the related changes in the music) as it should. The music certainly packed a punch though, with the two trumpeters, Paul Archibald and Bruce Nockles, glowing with a sturdy ardour in their many ordinal announcements towards the front of the stage.

Edward GardnerThe second date, Prom 33, was much more eclectic in personnel and in flavour. Along with the BBC Singers and an impressive line-up of soloists, and led by the extraordinary artistic director of English National Opera, Edward Gardner, the Sinfonietta demonstrated once again their ready ability to bring their own steady and inspired artistic skills to a broad repertoire.

Entitled 'Multiple Pianos 2', in truth this Prom saw the Sinfonietta act more as support group than as showcased ensemble. The programme was percussive in flavour and aspect, particularly so in the second half, where the batteries of pianos and drums required for Les Noces and for Bartok's Sonata for two pianos and percussion, drew the attention towards the soloists (the Sinfonietta were totally absent from the Bartok).

The sinewy but compressed range of motion of the Sonata is matched by the limited but nevertheless skilfully employed palette of tone colour used by the composer. The playing felt a little bleached in the very deliberate first movement, but the soloists, particularly the two percussionists Colin Currie and Sam Walton, soared in the more acrid Messiaen shapes of the second, and all four were attentive to the shape, and pleasingly gaudy in the themes, of the finale.

Gardner and percussionists from the Sinfonietta were partnered with the BBC Singers, four pianists (including two participants from the earlier Antheil, Tom Poster and Ashley Wass), and four vocal soloists for Les Noces. The piece is a helter skelter ride through stacked and striated rhythmic blocks of massed sound, awkward but deeply firm at the same time, which culminate in huge downbeats, and which are offset with occasional tapering of ensemble to highlight a vocal solo or momentary pause. In this whirligig ride, Gardner held fast to the phrasal and metric design, always asserting the force in the logic of the form, but he struggled at times to effectively manage the tumult around him. The chorus were solid, but the vocal soloists, particularly the two men, Vsevolod Grivnov and Kostas Smoriginas, failed to project in anything like a clear fashion, their lines often getting mired inaudibly in the texture. They both sang with great expression, however, in their exposed solos. The overall effect of the performance verged on the sublime, even despite these local glitches.

The longest piece of the night had been John Adams' Grand Pianola Music. Starting out more like John Luther Adams (in its teeming, fluorescent ambience) than John Adams, the work contains some unmistakably Reichian gestures (particularly the alternated sustained and staccato wordless voices, sung with precision and great expression by three female members of Synergy Vocals). The scoring and indeed the expression are more lush and eclectic than Reich though; the horn sonorities amidst luscious chords, and the tuba solos in the second section, for instance, both signal Adam's neo-romantic preferences. The performance, despite some initially unsteady rhythms from the otherwise assured soloists Rolf Hind and John Constable, was utterly vivid. The calm sureness of the writing, so unassuming but yet also so communicative, came across luminously. The madly ironic I-V-I progression and the unguarded textures of the finale suggested Abba's Arrival, amongst many other things, as a cousin in sound, and if a contemporary work can get away with something like that then it has to be, in my book, a good thing. The wonderful brio of the following melody, and the build towards the climax, were much more Adamsian (if I can use that term). Earlier, George Antheil's mad, flashy and slightly kitschy Ballet mécanique had been given an assertive and, at times, thrilling performance by Gardner, soloists, and ensemble.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Harrison Birtwistle and Edward Gardner

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