Concert Review

HearNow - Towards the Millenium: the 1990s: Review of two concerts conducted by Simon Rattle

Lindberg: Gran Duo Turnage: Blood on the Floor Martin Robertson, saxophone; John Scofield, guitar; Peter Erskine drums; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Rattle

Royal Festival Hall, 8 March 2000

And so to the final leg of Towards the Millenium, with the salutary thought that when the series began back in 1991, virtually none of the music to be heard over these three concerts had been written. There has been some criticism of the brevity of this final series and the choice of music, but its worth remembering that objective assessment of music in the 1990s is not yet possible, and that the composers featured are of unarguable importance in the context of the decade.

The opening concert featured the first of three CBSO/SBC millennium commissions. Although Magnus Lindberg set the pace in the 1980s, not least for his visceral amalgamation of orchestra and electronics, his music since the seminal Aura (1994) has been one of virtuoso concert-openers and more tentative experimental efforts. Gran Duo is neither of these, but a Symphonies of Wind Instruments for our day. Indeed the wind and brass scoring, bass clarinet apart, is identical to Stravinsky's masterpiece, although their formal processes are vastly different. The five sections of the Lindberg play continuously for some 19 minutes, traversing a cycle of 'characters' that mutate into each other with evident organic logic. Musical types vary from passages of intensive motivic writing to others of purely timbral impact: the whole contained within a harmonic framework, and with a culminating chorale sequence, of Sibelian plangency. Gran Duo is not the qualitative successor to Aura, but it finds Lindberg unafraid to try new paths in the renewal of his musical language.

The contrast with Mark-Anthony Turnage's Blood on the Floor is absolute: a 70 minute, 9 movement work of often violent contrasts, remarkable for its complete synthesis of jazz and classical idioms. The work abounds in the qualities and convictions that have made Turnage a composer to reckon with over the past decade - the sound of urban reality expressed in terms of real, but never slick sophistication. Though the movements coalesce in a satisfying sequence, its perhaps not too invidious to highlight Sweet and Decay (IV), the alto flute line sensuously played by Sarah Newbould, and Elegy for Andy (VI), a deeply-felt in memoriam to the composer's brother, drawing on 'cool' era Miles Davies to powerful effect. Dispelling the Fears (XI) is an adaptation of a separate concert work, but the recessional quality of the music, with the two solo trumpets - Jonathon Holland and Bruce Nockles - fronting the orchestra to spellbinding effect, makes for a tough, stoical conclusion.

John Scofield and Peter Erskine added their customary flair, but Martin Robertson understated virtuosity undoubtedly stole the show. Rattle conducted with the same belief that he brought to Turnage's CBSO commissions, and the whole work sounded magnificently sonorous in the normally unyielding RFH acoustic. Hear it on the Ensemble Modern's excellent recording (Argo 455 292-2ZH) and decide for yourself whether Blood on the Floor is a singular one-off or the blueprint for a whole new fusion.

Richard Whitehouse


Weir: We are Shadows; Messiaen: Eclairs sur l'au dela

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Youth Chorus and Orchestra/Rattle

Royal Festival Hall, 20 March 2000

This second concert in the final instalment of Towards the Millennium gave us a further new commission and what is already an end of era masterwork. Judith Weir's We are Shadows is probably the last piece to stem from her association with the CBSO, and an insightful demonstration of her strengths and weaknesses as a composer.

The texts, drawn from Emily Dickinson, Taoist philosophy and gravestone inscriptions, are familiar areas of inspiration for Weir, enabling her to reflect on the fragility of life in a series of oblique, often laconic yet ultimately heartening observations. The scoring blends children's voices and chorus with a varied but sparingly used orchestra, a telling backdrop for this pithy anti-Requiem. Yet one senses that the impact would be greater with reduced forces, and heard to best advantage in a more modest, intimate venue. Too often the expression sounds stretched beyond the physical limits of the material, the casualty being the freshness and humour Weir's music possesses in abundance, although at 20 minutes, the work was far from outstaying its welcome, Those new to Weir should investigate the collection of sparkling one-acters, including the Yuan-inspired The Consolations of Scholarship (Cala CACD88040), or the deceptively naïve opera Blond Eckbert (Collins Classics 1461-2).

No one could ever accuse Messiaen of underplaying his convictions. There was none the less a strong feeling at the beginning of the 1990s that any further works would merely consolidate his very real achievements of the preceding three decades. The appearance of Eclairs sur l'au-delà changed that perception, not by any startling new departures, but by streamlining and re-appraising the essentials of his unique idiom.

As one would expect from a product of Messiaen's last years, echoes of earlier works are numerous. The measured fanfares of the Apparition of Christ Glorified (I) recall the opening of L'Ascension, while the cumulative block-construction of The Constellation of Sagittarius (II) and The Stars and the Glory (VIII) find their more demonstrative precedents in Oiseaux éxotiques and Des canyons aux étoiles. Yet together with this greater starkness goes a new freedom and spontaneity in presenting the material, most apparent in the startlingly realistic Birds of the Trees of Life (IX), where the sound moves visibly around the woodwind. Most profound are Abide in Love (V), a string threnody of extraordinary raptness and harmonic translucency, and Christ, Light of Paradise (XI), whose effortlessly upward-reaching melody recalls earlier Messiaen conclusions - now in a rarefied and valedictory light.

At barely an hour, [several minutes faster than Myung-Whun Chung's vibrant account (DG 439 929-2GH)] Rattle performance moved the work intently and convincingly towards its date with the infinite, drawing the often brief movements into a convincing whole, with corresponding incisiveness of sound and expression. A sizeable audience, having earlier witnessed Alfred Brendel present Rattle with the Royal Philharmonic Society's Gold Medal, was clearly responsive to this last major statement by a composer whose creativity will resonate well into the future.

Richard Whitehouse

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