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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Lachenmann Plus: Helmut Lachenmann, speaker, London Sinfonietta, Ilan Volkov, conductor, LSO St Luke’s, 13 April 2005 (TJH)

Luke Stoneham: Hip to Easter Island (2002)
Iancu Dumitrescu: Au delà de Movemur (II) (2005 – world premiere)
Helmut Lachenmann: Mouvement ( – vor der Erstarrung) (1982-1984)
Stefano Gervasoni: Antiterra (1999 – UK premiere)
Helmut Lachenmann: ‘…zwei Gefühle …’, Musik mit Leonardo (1991-1992)

There are precious few chances to watch a gum-chewing bass guitar player rock out with members of the UK’s leading new-music ensemble, but Luke Stoneham’s Hip to Easter Island, which opened Ilan Volkov’s debut concert with the London Sinfonietta on Wednesday, afforded just such an opportunity. Stoneham’s piece was a real oddity, the sort of music that would have seemed out of place in almost any context – three parts funk, one part prog rock and one part contemporary classical, with a harpsichord and two violins woven into an otherwise “conventional” line up of Hammond organ, electric guitar, clavinet, drumkit and bass guitar. If its shock value wasn’t quite enough to sustain the nine-minute playing time, it was certainly enough to confound the expectations of the usually unshockable new-music crowd, making it a perfect introduction to an evening which was in many ways all about unexpected discoveries.

The event, a Radio 3 invitation concert held at LSO St Luke’s, was centred around the figure of Helmut Lachenmann, a one time director of Darmstadt and a composer whose music has garnered quite a cult following in the last few years. Lachenmann’s unique selling point is his interest in noise, and in particular the untapped sonic potential of traditional orchestral instruments. So woodwinds become percussion instruments, strings play pedal tones well below their usual range, and any number of clicks, pops, whispers, scrapes and shrieks permeate his kaleidoscopic musical landscapes.


If all that sounds daunting, it comes as a relief to hear just how musical the results are. The first of Wednesday’s pieces, Mouvement ( – vor der Erstarrung) began with a menagerie of tiny, almost inaudible noises – trumpeters silently blowing through their instruments, timpani tapped with fingertips rather than mallets, strings stroked lengthways with the bow – all of them occupying a no man’s land between sound and silence. Sound ultimately gained the upper hand, eventually coalescing into an excitingly rhythmic middle section, propelled by thumping timpani and a pair of antiphonal drums positioned at either side of the auditorium. Lachenmann’s unflagging inventiveness meant one’s eyes were constantly darting around the ensemble, trying to pinpoint how a certain sound was being produced: at one point, the clarinettists removed their mouthpieces and tapped on the end of their instrument with their hands, while the quiet breathing noises near the end of the work were made by the string players running their bows across – of all things – their tuning pegs.

The other Lachenmann piece, ‘…zwei Gefühle …’, Musik mit Leonardo was a kind of avant-garde radio play with Lachenmann himself delivering a halting, heavily phonemic text from behind a microphone. There was a great deal of theatre to this piece, with trumpet and tuba parping into an open piano at one point and Lachenmann’s voice being supplemented by whispers and yells from around the ensemble. The eerie evocation of the inside of a cave towards the end was the sort of sound most electroacoustic composers spend hours working with banks of expensive supercomputers to achieve; Lachenmann managed it with nothing but the London Sinfonietta. Truly music that had to be seen to be believed.

The other two pieces on the programme were less successful by comparison, though for quite different reasons. Stefano Gervasoni’s Antiterra was concerned with many of the same ideas as the two Lachenmann works; but while it was certainly inventive, it lacked the structural integrity of Mouvement or the narrative of ‘…zwei Gefühle…’, sounding more like a collection of interesting, but otherwise unrelated sounds. Iancu Dumitrescu’s Au delà de Movemur (II), here receiving its world premiere, suffered the opposite problem: in concentrating obsessively on a single idea – the deconstruction of a note into its constituent harmonics and partials – it quickly outstayed its welcome, however intriguing it was to hear sounds usually at the very fringes of our perception.

But it was a triumphant evening for Mr Lachenmann – who celebrates his 70th birthday in November – and also for Ilan Volkov, who is shaping up to be a phenomenally talented artist. One hopes that this will be far from his last engagement with either the London Sinfonietta or the weird and wonderful world of Helmut Lachenmann.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)