Furrer: Xenos, Nuum, Presto; Pinnock: Words

Hind, Kanga, London Sinfonietta and Royal Academy Manson Ensemble/Furrer

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 20 January 2011 4.5 stars

Beat FurrerBeat Furrer (b. 54) is a Swiss-Austrian composer whose music participates in the spectral paradigm (where harmony, tone-colour and form are constructed in terms of the minutiae of the harmonic spectrum as opposed to in terms of any tonal or non-tonal plan), without being limited to its environs.

Furrer has had relatively limited exposure in Britain, limited that is for a giant of contemporary European composition such as himself, and so it is good with this concert to see Furrer’s music being programmed at all in London, even if the programme could have done with being a little more substantial or, better, taking its place merely as a smaller element in a wider, habitual exploration. Still, this showcase, the culmination of a week of workshops at the Royal Academy with members of its Manson Ensemble, the composer, and the London Sinfonietta, should not be appraised for what it is not nor for what it reminds us of in absence, but rather on its own terms. In that respect it can be deemed a success, providing its audience as it did with such a glistening snapshot of Furrer’s wonderfully uncanny sound world.

I use the term uncanny advisedly, as this is music that sits ambiguously between domains of emphases, stability, and poise. Occupied as much as they are with shadow as they are explosion, each of the three Furrer pieces heard tonight marked out a clearly perceptible progression from a point A to a point B, from chaos to some form of ensemble coming together or (nebulous) sonic stability, but the interest was less in the getting there than in the vibrant paths used on the journey.

Following a somewhat stilted and uninformative discussion between John Fallas, Furrer, and the composer Naomi Pinnock, who had worked for over a year with Furrer on her piece Words, also heard tonight, Sinfonietta musicians Michael Cox (flute) and John Constable (piano) gave a tensile and vivid performance of Presto. This felt a little like a minor piece, judged in this context at least, but it also served as an effective opener - illustrative of Furrer’s broad poetics of conflict and union, but also sonically rich, from the percussive effects in the flute to the harmonics of the piano, suggesting a punchier intimation of Sciarrino's template as much as it did anything like Furrer's own.

Lest the composer's designs seem somewhat trite, I should emphasise here that the progression in Presto, for example, underwent unexpected torsions before arriving, at its endpoint, at a passage of scattered agreement as opposed to at the sort of facile resolution perhaps suggested by my equation of points A and B. Such an enigmatic formal model was also evident in the second piece, Xenos. Written for chamber ensemble with an accordion at its heart, the work frames a found melody (heard by Furrer whilst in Istanbul listening to an Imam) through various spectral filters and elaborations, now strident, now ghostly, allowing it to breath fully only towards the end, even then sounding it in shadow, high overtone resonances in the accordion smearing the intoning of the bass flute, contrabass clarinet and double bass across the heart of the texture. With Furrer conducting the mixed ensemble brought out the detail of the work with acuity, tonally rich and dynamically alert.

The ghostly, speckled passages in Xenos were recalled in Pinnock's Words, but now as the central textural motif. Introducing cimbalom and baritone (a charismatic and oddly commanding Omar Ebrahim) to winning effect into a similar ensemble to that used in Xenos, Words makes present a music of phantoms and interstices. Like Furrer, it seems forever out of step with presence, staggering flow and slipping through boundaries without pageant or haughtiness. This strategy was embodied in the way the text, in reality just one sentence, was stretched, chopped up, disintegrated, across the three movements. Sonically rich and refreshingly fragile, Words showed itself enriched by its affinity with Furrer, without ever sounding indebted to him.

Closing the concert was Furrer's Nuun, a work for two pianos and orchestra that broadens the compositional poetics and strategies already discussed to a point of intense concentration and tension. Featuring continuous transformation across three distinct levels of timbre, rhythm, and harmony, Nuun marks out sometimes-perceptible, sometimes buried progression from ferocity and freneticism to something like calmness and clarity. Anchoring the whole were the two pianos of Rolf Hind and Zubin Kanga, relentless both, who, even when submerged by the teeming overtone grids, could be felt to playfully and authoritatively sound the disorderly pulse that gave the music its heart. Even if the ensemble playing could have been tighter at times, particularly in the bringing out of the varying bowing techniques and points of articulation in the strings, this performance was notably impressive, arcing out towards it end to a point of distant, moving vulnerability. Hopefully this is not the last we see of Furrer on these shores.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Beat Furrer

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