As part of this year's ongoing Ether Festival the Southbank Centre and the Centre for Contemporary Music Cultures of Goldsmith's College presented the Xenakis International Symposium, a weekend-long series of events that included a substantial programme of scholarly research presentations, the screening of a film on the composer, a UPIC workshop, and two concerts, of which this performance by Ensemble Exposé under the direction of Roger Redgate was the second.
Taking up both the archival and the exploratory inclinations of the Symposium, the concert saw the presentation of three important chamber works from across Xenakis' career, with these being interleaved by three world premiere performance of works by composers for whom Xenakis has been a significant figure. In doing this the concert provided a fascinating illustration of the shifting compositional concerns of the composer whilst at the same time showing these in something of a fresh light through the relief of the new works.
Beginning with the chronologically earliest work on the programme, Anaktoria for octet from 1969, the Ensemble quickly showed themselves to be alert to detail and forthright in emphasis. One would have liked a little more cohesiveness and fluency of expression in the group playing at this stage (though the clarinet and bassoon combined winningly near the beginning), but individually, particularly in the rasping and screaming clarinet of Andrew Sparling, this performance showed real bite.
This sharpness of manner returned with force in the latter Palimpsest¸ a teeming work for 11 musicians that is full of ungainly percussive volleys and just-unhinged rhythmic tuttis, but it was in the remarkable Akea for piano quintet that the performers really excelled and the concert kicked into a higher gear. Written in 1986, Akea displays Xenakis' latter-day concern for textures of unprecedented clarity and harmonic arguments of the most unexpected limpidity (in contrast to the harmonic 'clouds', the glissandi, and the abstruse microtones of the previous decade), and these qualities brought out a fastidiousness and a lucidity in the performers that was all the more impressive considering the often wild musical context in which the work was placed. Moving through spellbinding cycles of Xenakis' famous non-octave repeating scales (sieves), the music preserves opacity in its tendency towards asymptotic phrasing, but this tendency is never felt as strongly as the concurrent one towards order and balance in the scoring and in the steady rhythmic cycles. Pianist Mark Knoop took the honours here with his growingly robust contribution, but the string quartet deserve equal praise for their own poised realisation of what is a deceptively intense and tricksy piece of music.
Each of the three new works on the programme had something to recommend it, whether it was in the unassuming but fluent admixture of scratchy strings and Matthew Wright's hectic turntable filigrees in Roger Redgate's ST/X-t, violist Bridget Carey's gripping central cadenza in the otherwise richly glacial ritual of Michael Finnissy's Talawva, or Christopher Redgate's stunning reedless coaxing of his playing partners in the exciting and mischievous dialogic dance of Haris Kittos' Omadón. All of these new works were given attentive and dextrous performances by Redgate and the Ensemble, and they were all warmly received, but the Xenakis portions of the programme formed its nucleus and provided what for me were clearly the richest musical experiences of the night.
Photo: Iannis Xenakis
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