Concert Review

Nørgård , Zuidam, Northcott. London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen with Lucy Shelton (soprano), Rolf Hind, Nicolas Hodges (pianos) and Michael Thompson (horn). Queen Elisabeth Hall, 5 April 2000.

The first of the London Sinfonietta's 'New to London' concerts was dominated by the figure of Per Nørgård (born 1932), who is to be the featured composer at the Almeida Theatre and Hoxton Hall events in July. This Danish composer has a very personal sound-world, one sensitive to, and inspired by, the world around him. In the early 1960s Nørgård worked on the concept of the 'infinite series' to facilitate a hierarchical concept of harmonic writing. More recently, he has successfully married the various influences of avant-gardism, infinite series and an evocative response to Nature.

The first piece by him we heard was the London premiere of 'Prelude to breaking' (1986), an effective study in sonorities in which the late-entering soprano (Lucy Shelton) was fully integrated into the musical texture. The evocative inspiration for this piece (wave-forms experienced in Kerala, Southern India) was fully reflected in the luscious textures. We had an unexpected second chance to experience them when Knussen exclaimed 'I feel like doing that again' - and so they did. Knussen's penchant for the unprogrammed reprise in his concerts is indeed a welcome one!

The other Nørgård piece in the concert, Unendlicher Empfang ('Infinite Acceptance'), also receiving its London premiere, was for two pianos and four metronomes (operated by the pianists, Rolf Hind and Nicolas Hodges). Nørgård brushed with minimalism in the opening pages, before opening out into a more characteristic lyricism. The presence of four metronomes (two per pianist, each set to a different pulse) set up a disorienting, disturbing effect, brought off with effortless virtuosity by the protagonists.

The Dutch composer Robert Zuidam's 'Address to the New Tay Bridge' (1997) sets a text by the scansionally-challenged William McGonagall (1825-1902) for soprano (Lucy Shelton) and chamber ensemble. Shelton had to cope with a wide-ranging, high part which came across remarkably well. The tension created between a serious setting and an (albeit-unintentionally) 'nonsense' text generated most of the interest in this piece.

The only disappointment in this concert was Bayan Northcott's Concerto for Horn and Ensemble, Op. 8 (1990-98). Whilst Northcott utilises the full gamut of effects from the horn (stopping, muted, brassed etc), his somewhat undifferentiated musical language stretched the 20 minute duration so that it seemed much longer. The virtuoso horn player Michael Thompson made the best possible case, however. A pity to tarnish the memory of such interesting music which preceded it.

Nørgård is not overly represented in the catalogue for a composer of his stature. Chandos have issued Symphonies 1 & 2 CHAN9450 and 4 & 5 CHAN9533, while the Kontra Quartet have recorded Six String Quartets on Kontrapunkt 32015. On NMC, Northcott's song 'The Maidens came…' is sung by Mary Wiegold NMCD003.

Colin Clarke

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