Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Britten Sinfonia/Aimard @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

7 November 2009

People are often scared off modern music because of what they hear about it rather than what they hear.

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Queen Elizabeth Hall (Photo: Morley von Sternberg)

There’s nothing like personal experience, as opposed to theory. Pierre-Laurent Aimard loves Elliott Carter, so this concert was an imaginative, intelligent introduction to Carter’s music.

Being a centenarian means that Carter has lived modern music since it was new. He played Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Antheil as early as 1928, and attended premieres of Bartok and many others we take for granted today. Carter delights in confounding expectations. In what he calls his late late period’, he writes music that’s joyfully witty. Hadyn’s Symphony no 83 in G minor The Hen’ is so named because its darting “clucks” sound like hens merrily playing in a yard. It was a good way to start the concert, for Carter’s music is similarly down to earth and free spirited, even in major works like Dialogues.

Dialogues (2003) is based on a fairly simple cell but developed so inventively that there’s a sense of vibrant movement. Individual orchestral parts are so distinctive that it feels more like a parley, or conference, than conventional concertante, oboe, bassoon and horn contribute volubly. The strings act like a peloton in a cycle race, enabling the progress of the team as a whole. Single chords and notes appear throughout, like affirmations and asides in conversation. Amusingly, I was reminded of the hens’ in Haydn, genially clucking together.

Dialogues was balanced nicely by five smaller Carter pieces, each about 5 minutes long. This was a masterstroke, as they were played in succession, flowing into one another like another set of “dialogues” this time between different works as well as instruments. Each player had his or her moment in the spotlight before blending back into the darkness. Framing the set were two Diversions for piano, from 1999. The first is a play of intervals and tempi, while the second contrasts separate lines, one accelerating while the other decelerates. “With these musical ideas about diverging materials, I hope I have written diverting music”, wrote Carter, with typical whimsy.

Riconoscenza is a tribute to Goffredo Petrassi’s 80th birthday. Like Carter, Petrassi was robust and lived nearly 20 more years. Jacqueline Shave, first violin of the Britten Sinfonia, negotiated its tricky nut cheerful intricacies. Nicholas Daniel played Inner Song. Short as this is, it’s like a haiku, distilling many ideas. No room to slack: Daniel delivered with precision and intensity.Enchanted Preludes brought together flute and cello. These instruments aren’t often heard together, but Carter enjoys adventure, giving Emer McDonough and Caroline Dearnley a chance to interact gracefully, but with energy.

Even the Mozart Piano Concerto No 14 in E flat (K449) sounded Carteresque in this performance in the sense that Aimard and the Britten Sinfonia were so attuned to Carter’s lively idiom that they made Mozart sound as fresh and irreverent as he must have been in his own times, when he, too, was new music’. Programme notes were adequate but the programme presentation could have been more polished. It’s not easy to strike a balance between too much and too little information. Perhaps one day someone will crack the art of stimulating audiences to listen creatively, without being intimidated because they don’t go out much or know sophisticated terms.

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