Concert Review

Towards the Millennium - the 1990s: Final Concert
Henze: A Tempest (London premiere)/Ligeti: Violin Concerto/Holt: Sunrise yellow noise (London premiere)/Tippett: The Rose Lake
Tasmin Little, violin/Lisa Milne, soprano/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Royal Festival Hall, London 31 March 2000

And so to the last concert of the final series - a mixed bag stylistically,held together by a relevance to the present, and, for all its diversity, a shared conviction for the future.

Admittedly its hard to feel provisional about Henze's A Tempest, here functioning as a curtain-raiser, but destined to become the opening movement of his Tenth Symphony, to be premiered by Rattle in 2002. A tightly-drawn, 10 minute piece with literal and, perhaps, psychological connotations rather than literary allusions, its outward sonata form makes for an obvious symphonic first movement; as does the process of thematic elements brought into play and intensfied, only to be left unresolved. Stylistically there are no new surprises, and those who have responded to the dense textures and harmonic richness, bordering on flaccidity, of Henze's last three symphonies will certainly take to the new piece. Rattle and the CBSO gave it their customary all, and it will be interesting to hear how the work proceeds in two years time.

That Ligeti's Violin Concerto, so clearly a seminal work of the '90s, has already achieved repertoire status was confirmed by tonight's performance, just a month after the Tetzlaff/Boulez reading at the Barbican. I commented then on the work's intricate and intriguing five movements, with their many symmetries of form and content. Interpretatively, Tasmin Little was a good deal freer in approach, bringing an almost heart-on-sleeve emotion in theBartókian strains of the Aria and a comparable layered intensity to the Passcaglia. If the outer movements seemed less of a piece, this was less to do with technical considerations - the cadenza a superb combination of bravura display and structured thinking - than with the soloist finding the right focus for this elusive music. Clearly a powerful interpretation in the making, keenly supported by Rattle, even if one of two of the microtonal niceties all too obviously misfired.

Simon Holt's Sunrise' Yellow Noise was the last of the CBSO/SBC Millennium commissions for this series; not so much a setting as an elaboration on Emily Dickinson's deceptively unassuming two-stanza poem. The scoring, for an orchestra without violas or cellos, acts as a flexible resonating body, the soprano emerging with the text at moments which seemed governed - rightly so - by the musical discourse. Its a thoughtful and often imaginative response to Dickinson's homespun metaphysics, capably sung by Lisa Milne, which no doubt has more to yield in future performances.

Rounding off the series with the final major work by Sir Michael Tippett was an astute move, not least because just five years earlier, The Rose Lake was given its world premiere at the Barbican, in a concert which can now be seen to have marked the passing of his music into that timeless sphere between present and past. Much has been written about the almost extemporized form of this substantial work, not so much developing, as organically extending fragments of its basic ideas up to the effusive mid-point, then contracting back to a conclusion that could only be Tippett's in its mixture of pathos and humour. Rattle has clearly begun developing a relationship with Tippett's music in the course of this series (there was a very fine Fourth Symphony in the 1970s instalment); his interpretation was appreciably swifter than that of Sir Colin Davis, drawing the layers of tension together so that the piece took on a symphonic dimension almost in spite of itself. Superb playing from the CBSO, not least the horn writing that harks back to The Midsummer Marriage - its vibrancy now imbued with a wisdom the more heartening for an absence of valediction.

So there it is - 10 years on, a century in music traversed, a decade created from scratch. Omissions, substitutions, high and lows? Of course, but this was a coherent and, as far as is possible from one man [initially two, let's not forget the role of Michael Vyner in the planning stages], representative overview of a complex, often disorientating but always fascinating century. A rare hand on heart gesture to the audience implied that Sir Simon at the close he knew the effort of the 10 year series had been worthwhile.

Richard Whitehouse

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