Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Sinfonietta/Knussen @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

28 January 2009

Oliver Knussen conducted the London Sinfonietta in Elliott Carter and John Woolrich, with precision and panache, in a concert of new and very new works for mixed ensembles.

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Queen Elizabeth Hall (Photo: Morley von Sternberg)

The concert started with Carter’s ASKO Concerto written in 2000.

The piece lays down its harsh, stark chord immediately before illustrating various characters and their relationships with individual lines on solo violin and horn, which take it in turns to ignore each other before the clarinet and double bass have a more sensitive conversation. As the piece continues (“develops” is hardly the right word for it) there are more livingly entwined duets and trios interrupted by the group as a whole, and so the piece is constantly transparent, the throng of detail never being crammed in for the sake of it.

After some lengthy rearrangement of the instruments was the world premiere of Woolrich’s Between the Hammer and the Anvil. On the whole it was very entertaining and eventful, never a drab second in all twenty-five minutes. The piece contains a part for a large Yamaha keyboard which fires weird and deep twangs at occasional moments in the quirk-laden music.

There were too many brilliant moments to detail among the ensemble writing and playing, but the freshest came from the triple percussion team, splayed out on stage in far corners, perfectly synchronised and desynchronised from one bar to the next: always archly aware of its witty impact.

After the interval there were three more shortish pieces by Elliott Carter, various of character and interest. The first was Rflexions for large ensemble. This consisted of several mercurial ideas presented as in a fashion show, coming on, doing a twirl and exiting as another comes onto the catwalk. Some of the models (to continue the analogy) came back out in different clothing or with twin brothers and sisters.

Au Quai was a totally charming and intricate four minute duet between viola and bassoon. The sweetness was sadly soured by the final work, Dialogues, a sort of miniature piano concerto. Written in an ultra-serious, complex and clogged style it almost immediately became dull and bordered on parody.

Stormy, chunky chords churned out by Nicolas Hodges on the piano were followed by long-held notes from the strings and seemed to hint at being some kind of mock-romantic concerto. Once the strings were allowed to make more detailed contributions there were passages of tenderness and beauty, just a bit too late.

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