Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Amsterdam Sinfonietta/Thompson @ Barbican Hall, London

18 March 2011

Expect the unexpected from the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. The all-string outfit doesnt just play music. It also commissions, re-interprets and re-configures examples of the art form.

The Sinfoniettas innovative tactics didnt disappoint on this occasion which was the penultimate concert in a six-city European tour. Under the heading Liebestod, the programme linked three works under the common theme of unattainable love, and featured a staged monologue and film performance.

The starting point was Wagners Tristan und Isolde prelude, arranged by Adrian Williamson for string orchestra. The Sinfoniettas performance of this seminal work was practically faultless. Superbly timed playing was coupled with a remarkable intensity and even a touch of daring the exaggerated dissonances in the build-up to the famous Tristan chord could have been disastrous, but proved perfectly apt.

The final bars of Alban Bergs Lyric Suite include a quotation from Tristan und Isolde as a deliberate clue to another frustrated love that of Berg for Hannah Fuchs-Robettin, the wife of yet another industrialist and musical patron. Indeed, the affair (unconsummated, it seems) was not discovered until 1976 when Frau Fuchs-Robettins papers were examined and found to contain numerous love letters and an annotated score by Berg. Parts of the letters were adapted by Janine Brogt into a monologue staged by Pierre Audi, with actor Jeroen Willems playing the role of Berg. The monologue gave a fascinating insight into the gestation of the Suite and into the mind of the famously reticent Berg. Parts of it, though, were a little long and delayed the Amsterdam Sinfoniettas scrupulously observed playing of all six movements three arranged by Berg from his original string quartet version, and three by Theo Verbey in 2006.

The second half of the concert was taken up by the UK premire of Up-Close by Michel van der Aa. Composed in 2010, the piece is a concerto for cello and string orchestra plus film and stage action. The theme of unattainable love was less obvious in this piece, although the accompanying film of an older womans visit to an empty, isolated house seemed to suggest the search for past memories. Nevertheless, Up-Close could easily have stood on its own as a three-movement cello concerto. Harmonically rich and tonally expressive, it fully explored the cellos distinctive voice, while the strings of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta flourished under the watchful eye of lead violinist and artistic director Candida Thompson. Soloist Sol Gabetta for whom the work was written gave a supremely confident and athletic performance, which included dashing across the stage with a standing lamp in one hand.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk

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