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S & H Concert Review

NEW CARTER Kagel, Milstein, Read Thomas, Carter Claire Booth (soprano); Nicolas Hodges (piano); London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen. QEH, January 23rd, 2004 (CC)


The London Sinfonietta’s staunch commitment to the music of our time was amply demonstrated in this programme of one London, one European and two World premieres. Three of the four composers were in attendance.

Mauricio Kagel’s Double Sextet (2000/1) is, perhaps uncharacteristically for this composer, a piece that creates an organic unity from the germs heard at the very start of the work. The title refers to the instrumentation (six wind and six strings). Actually, the scoring is interesting as it omits clarinets and violas so that, in theory at least, there is the potential for the creating of an acoustic space (or a hole, if you like). The omission of brass takes the edge off the sound, so the buzzing, high-voltage opening actually sets the timbral scene perfectly. As always with this composer, there was something strangely compelling about the whole affair - how a wacky sense of humour surfaces (or threatens to surface) from time to time; how a tonal referent can have a jarring affect because of being shorn of its traditional directionality and how a Kagel melody (lyrical and expressive) can shock by its sheer contextual daring. No better beginning to the concert can be imagined.

Argentinian-born composer Silvana Milstein (born 1956) is currently on the faculty of King’s College, London (KQC). Her Tigres Azules (2003, ‘Blue Tigers’) takes its inspiration from a story by Borges. Scored for continuo of harpsichord, piano, harp, celesta and tuned percussion, complemented by five wind and five strings, the sound-world of the piece invoked Boulez in its luxuriance. There is a distinctly Romantic heart to this work. Milstein’s scoring is very appealing (at times positively bejewelled), occasionally seeming to refer back of Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene in its intensity and constant shifts.

Augusta Read Thomas’ In My Sky at Twilight (2002) is subtitled ‘Songs of Passion and Love’. Poetic fragments from sixteen different poets are divided into two movements (‘Deeper than Roses’ and ‘Lament’), separated by an instrumental interlude. Thomas’ expert scoring and use of contrasts makes for an interesting 25 minutes, if not making up a whole that is memorable enough to return to frequently. Despite all the wonderful efforts of the remarkable soprano Claire Booth (who negotiated the disjunct lines with ease and also sang both with passion and with purity), this set of personal responses to varied texts failed to convince. Compositional technique was never in doubt, but moments of ‘maximum risk and striving’ (which the composer claims to be her favourite moments) were few and far between.

The Sinfonietta saved their ‘big’ premiere until last. Dialogues for piano and chamber orchestra (2003) is a ‘conversation between soloist and orchestra’. They respond to one another, interrupt each other and argue. If that implies a certain etiquette in proceedings in comparison with the Piano Concerto of 38 years earlier, Dialogues is nevertheless one of the best Carter pieces I have heard. Bayan Northcott in his note refers to the unpredictability of a real conversation, and this is very much what is on offer here. The pianist, Nicolas Hodges, was superb in his performance of the solo part. The opening cor anglais solo rather surprisingly brought the world of Tristan to mind and another surprise came in the form of an ‘Orpheus-taming-the-beasts’ moment. Carter’s imagination still gushes unstoppably.

Do try to hear the BBC broadcast on Saturday, February 7th.

Colin Clarke


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