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Charles WUORINEN (b. 1938)
Cyclops 2000 (2000) [23:29]
A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky (1974) [16:21]
London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen
rec. May 2001, October 1994, London.


Oliver Knussen’s years in the United States were formative. I’m not sure exactly when he encountered Charles Wuorinen’s music, but he has been a leading exponent of it for many years. Thus the London Sinfonietta’s affinity for Wuorinen draws vitality from strong roots. Any performance they present of his music is going to be worth hearing 

This performance on this disc of “Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky” is the session at the Henry Wood Hall from October 1994 which on first release did so much to establish the work in the repertoire. It is an important milestone. It captures an exciting moment in the orchestra’s development and helped seal its reputation as well as the composer’s. The orchestra is still cutting edge. The work was first conducted by a young Michael Tilson-Thomas and later adapted for ballet, but the Sinfonietta’s recording is the classic reference. That’s why I have no hesitation in recommending this new release, even for those who have the earlier release. Because this release is on the Sinfonietta’s own label, profits directly benefit the orchestra so that it can continue its sterling work.

Reliquary grew from a fragment of notes by Stravinsky, which would have taken about one minute to perform as is. Wuorinen adapts this basic material, developing variations based loosely on Stravinsky’s late style. Thus, “reliquary”, a relic embellished with reverence. Peter Lieberson has called the piece “a structure built to contain sacred icons”. The piece is set out in seven sections. The first sets out the basic Stravinskian material in a fairly straightforward manner, to be developed in the second part, entitled “Variation”. It’s marked by a dramatic, explosive violin solo. The other strings shoot out strident chords, which later evolve into crashing waves on cymbals. Wuorinen consciously wrote these expansive chords to express in musical form the diagonal lines Stravinsky drew on his manuscript notes. The solo violin returns in the next section, “Lament”, this time with less exuberance. The “diagonal” chordal swathes continue, like shafts of light and colour. The final section, “Reliquary” is most inventive of all. The chords here are painted by piano, giving a more understated effect. Then they are taken up by oboe and bassoon, before being returned to the strings. If you listen carefully, there are subtle snatches reminiscent of Rite of Spring as well as Stravinsky’s later style. This is a gorgeous performance, .richly realised, and deserves its status in the canon. 

This disc is recommended, too, because it also includes the world premiere of Wuorinen’s “Cyclops 2000” recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in May 2001. The name is a play on Cyclops, of ancient myth, who had one giant eye and could only see straight ahead. Hence, it’s written on a single constant metre. The real drama, though, comes from what Cyclops does with his single eye, or rather what Wuorinen does, within the constraints of the metre. The music proceeds in fits and starts, jerking from side to side, switching from rapid tempo to moments of still contemplation. Textures vary: sometimes soloists pulling out from the ensemble, sometimes duetting and exchanging partners in further duets. This gives the piece a strong sense of movement, even though it rises from a simple, single line. Knussen’s conducting draws together the disparate figures, so the piece moves forward like a quirky, joyous procession, all elements moving in relation to each other, always headed towards a goal. The piece was commissioned by a financial publishing company at a time when the stock market was running high. This was before September 11th. In retrospect, its optimism and confidence seems sadly innocent. Still, it’s a reminder that good music survives, no matter what happens in the world. 

Anne Ozorio 



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