How refreshing, if rather unexpected, to find at the heart of the Ray Davies-curated (yes, thats the former frontman of the Kinks) 2011 Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre a performance by the London Sinfonietta of works by two of this countrys leading bad-boys-turned-stars-of-the-establishment, Sirs Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies.
The choice of the latter as director of this years festival was meant to show how pop culture has, 60 years on from the first Festival of Britain, infiltrated every part of modern life but how this related to tonights concert never quite became apparent.
Never mind even the absence of Davies from this event didnt detract from the vitality of the music and the sheer brilliance of the performances. The climax was Maxwell Daviess Eight Songs for a Mad King, the ability of which to shock and challenge over 40 years after its premire is still quite breath-taking. Key to this was the superb performance of the baritone Leigh Melrose: presenting such an overtly theatrical piece in a semi-staged performance places even greater demands on the protagonist, but such was the complete assumption of the role of the mad king that the audience could barely allow itself to break the atmosphere even by shuffling in their seats.
If ever a single role showed just what the human voice is capable of by means of extended techniques, this was surely it: rasping, shrieking, bel canto singing, bird-like twittering, falsetto, forced huskiness at the bottom of the voice all this, and more, is written into the score, and Melrose absorbed it all and created the living embodiment of madness on stage.
But let us not forget the vital and incisive contribution of the London Sinfonietta, brilliantly directed by Baldur Brnnimann: for the Eight Songs the entire world of plagues and torments that the king endures is created by only six players with scarcely easier parts to play. The thunderous applause for Melroses bravura solo performance was fully deserved as would be more performances of this brilliant, unsettling work.
For the first half of the concert, a fuller complement of players took to the stage for Birtwistles recent (2008) reworking of Ciconias Sus un fontayne into Virelai, an intense, concentrated study in the original, medieval melodic lines not so far removed in their angularity and irregularity from the way in which composers like Hindemith and Krenek created their own were subtly nudged and stretched before gently dispersing.
In contrast, Birtwistles ground-breaking Secret Theatre is a large-scale work (which was composed back in 1984 for the London Sinfonietta) which, with its structural allusion to the concerto grosso in its use of a group tasked with the melody (Cantus) working above an accompanying group (Continuum). Birtwistles innovative and inspired twist to this basic idea is to have certain players move between the two, starting with the flautist, at first outlining the initial melody, combining with later movers in various types of unison, before moving back to the Continuum.
This theatrical aspect to the work allows the audience, through following the players, to be able to sense the larger structure of the work, and how the composer handles his musical building-blocks again, given thrilling advocacy by the London Sinfonietta. Birtwistle himself was present in the audience, and was called onto the stage for his own deserved applause while these works didnt have the shock factor of the Eight Songs, their own challenging impact was still a reminder of Birtwistles ever-fertile mind.
Further details of Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk