London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen with Lucy Shelton (soprano) Colin Matthews Two Tributes. Harvey Death of Light/Light of Death. Carter ASKO Concerto. Tempo e Tempi. Hesketh The Circling Canopy of Night.. QEH, 24 May 2000. (CC)
Indefatigable is really the only word for Elliott Carter, now 91 and showing no sign at all of slowing down - quite the reverse, in fact. His pre-concert talk with Bayan Northcott was a fascinating exploration of past, present and future. The influence of the Bach Cantatas and Mozart was discussed (the influence of Boulanger's teaching), the works in the programme mulled over and his admission of having accepted Barenboim's suggestion of a second opera - all contributed to one's admiration of this man.
All of the works in the programme were premieres in one way or another - two world premieres, including the first piece to be heard, Colin Matthew's' 'Two Tributes' for chamber ensemble. The first, 'Little Continuum', is a ninetieth birthday present for Carter, energetic both in the tension-filled harmonies and the busy textures. The second, 'Elegia', was a poignant epitaph for the cellist Christopher van Kampen (the cellist of the ensemble left the stage for this piece), darkly hued and moving.
Harvey's conductorless 'Death of Light, Light of Death' (1998), receiving its London Premiere, is a response to Grunewald's 'Crucifixion' from the Isenheim altarpiece. Electronics, often associated with this composer, were conspicuous by their absence (although possibly invoked by the oboe's screeching multiphonics). This piece has a passionate side to it, although it also seemed to meander uncharacteristically at times.
Carter's ASKO Concerto for 16 players (January 2000) was, by contrast, confident and impressive. Carter seems incapable of writing an ugly phrase, his lines frequently characterised by innate lyricism. A miniature concerto for orchestra, the Sinfonietta relished the opportunity to dazzle with their collective virtuosity. Perspectives change constantly because of the soloistic nature; the whole is characterised by Carter's unfailing ear for sonority. A treat, then, that Knussen did it again!
The world premiere complete performance of 'Tempo e Tempi' (1999) brought with it another side of Carter. There is a heightened sense of intimacy throughout - the close interrelations between Lucy Shelton's tenderly declaimed lines and the small chamber ensemble of violin, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet and cello were breathtaking. Carter's love for these texts (by Montale, Quasimodo and Ungaretti) shone through.
Finally to Hesketh, Knussen's nominated composer for Faber Music's Millennium Series. His piece, 'The Circling Canopy of Night' (billed as 18 minutes long, actually 25) showed an acute ear for sonority - Boulez-like pointillism was married with a real talent for lyrical melody. It did, however, outstay its welcome - with some honing of compositional technique, Hesketh shows real promise.
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