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Messiaen, Amaral and Eötvös: Peter Eötvös (conductor), London Sinfonietta, Paul Crossley (piano), Marco Blaauw (trumpet), David Hockings (percussion), Omar Ebrahim (speaker), Sounds Intermedia. Queen Elizabeth Hall, 25.2. 2006 (AO)



Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques

Amaral: Paraphrase (world premičre)

Eötvös: Snatches of a conversation, Triangel (UK Premičre)

Messiaen listened to caged birds and recordings while writing Oiseaux exotiques and his other 'bird' pieces. In Réveil des oiseaux (1953) the composer had been anxious to let the birdsong speak for itself but in Oiseaux exotiques (1956) the birds serve a more stylised purpose: their songs become hooks for other musical ideas. This technique, along with Messiaen's interest in the "oriental" effects of gongs and drums certainly appealed to the radical young composers of the time as "new music".

Paul Crossley played the piece with muscular agility, as did the soloists portraying the “bird” movements, but I did wonder if Messiaen’s true soul lay in pondering things beyond human invention.  I felt much the same on hearing Pedro Amaral’s Paraphrase which does in fact paraphrase both an earlier work and also many phrases and themes from within the pieceitself. The solo trumpet, superbly played by Marco Blaauw, led the ensemble into endless reinvention. Some of the effects were particularly good, such as the deeply resonant winds and strings answering low passages on the trumpet and then taken up by piano.  Patterns built on patterns.  As with the Messiaen though, I wondered if compositional technique had outbalanced emotion in this piece but since Amaral is still only 34, he has many years of composition ahead of him.

Eötvös’s Snatches of a Conversation was written the morning after the composer had conducted Janacek at Glyndebourne.  It is a piece exploring verbal rhythms and the sound of syntax - not a new idea, particularly as the range of spoken sounds is fairly limited. The music comes across as an impressionistic, half remembered dream recalling the experience of the opera conducted the night before and it would be easy to make too much of the jazz flavoured trumpet playing (and the bluesy verbal response to it) for again this is nothing particularly new. Eötvös himself says of it however that he was primarily thinking about opera when he wrote it and the jazz episode is only a part of the whole, like a minor character in a plot. He thinks of  the piece as an “Étude”, a study, for his opera Le Balcon -  paraphrases yet again!  Playing a double bell trumpet, which allowed him to alternate rapidly between different mutes, Marco Blaauw transcended the work's limitations and illuminated its strengths. 

Eötvös’s reputation rests on greater things.  His instinct as a man of theatre can rise above mere form and in Triangel the music itself becomes the drama -   significantly, each performance of the piece is unique, because improvisation is central to its concept.  Tensions between the composed parts and the improvisations give the music a real sense of emotional risk taking and adventure but  even without this the piece is the essence of music “as theatre” since it overturns the usual spatial constructs of the orchestra.  The smallest and most basic instrument, the triangle, is dominant throughout and the percussionist features as player, leader and composer.  Some effects are particularly striking (literally and figuratively) as when the triangle leads the tuba and kettle drums while the sight of huge, menacing gongs in the background hints at even more drama to come.  The piece is intricate and built up of ten tableaux, each experimenting with different kinds of percussion and with both the relationships between them and with other instruments. 

A group of winds stand together playing around resonating bell plates and   here, the piccolo soars to reminisce on the shrill sound of the now silent triangle.  Later, the percussionist plays steel drums and their reverberating sound is echoed by strings.  Surprising new sounds are also heard, from microphones, and from small triangles being played in the darkness by members of the orchestra who patently aren’t natural percussionists.  This is good, because it shows the range of sound that a simple instrument can make, and also marks the fact that even something humble can have a place in a bigger drama of which more follows. A solo clarinettist moves round in circles as he plays, the sound shifting subtly as he turns away from the audience and when the gongs are struck, they resound for a while, unplayed by human hand, while a line of brass (also with backs to the audience) carries on with the gongs' sounds.  This is an intricate tour de force which comes to life vividly when played by musicians of this calibre.

David Hockings' performance as the percussion soloist was a particularly stimulating experience.  His materials may be simple, but he brings out of them a range of sound that springs from a truly creative imagination.  At one point he balanced a cymbal on the rim of the timpani and as the drum was beaten, the cymbal responded sympathetically apparently of its own volition. Deftly beating the cymbal itself, produced a further apparently self-induced effect and when cymbal and the drum were played simultaneously each responded in new ways:   even the relative positioning of cymbal on drum created further interesting effects.  At the very end the piece, the triangle returned, alone, humble and plaintive, evoking for me the Winterreise's Leiermann playing his primitive tune while impervious to the storms and anguish around him.

Anne Ozorio



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