BBC Proms reviews

Prom 27: London Sinfonietta/Atherton @ Royal Albert Hall, London

4 August 2009

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 75th Birthday was celebrated by the London Sinfonietta in a stirring late night programme comprising three of the composer’s earlier works.

The event was somewhat nostalgic, with the Sinfonietta, whose connection with Birtwistle goes back some four decades, led by the ensemble’s co-founder and the renowned conductor of such premieres as Punch and Judy, David Atherton.

With its showy cascades of percussion and nods towards theatricality musicians dodging between instruments and positions on the platform – Verses for Ensemble is a truly spectacular work and one that shows off the ensemble’s brilliance to impressive effect with a dazzling series of spotlit solos.

What a great way to inaugurate the newly formed London Sinfonietta in 1969 and how apt that the work should form the centrepiece of the current celebration.

Verses for Ensemble was preceded by two shorter but equally enjoyable works of a decade or so later. Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum (1977) inspired by the Swiss artist Paul Klee and written for the London Sinfonietta’s 10th anniversary, is a short, sharp piece of jauntiness. Hearing it live brings out all sorts of details that are less easily discernible on disc, the extent of the piano’s spiky contribution for instance.

The same’s true of Silbury Air (1977, revised 2003), which benefits enormously from live performance. Birtwistle could hardly be called descriptive and, although he takes his inspiration from the Wiltshire burial mound of the same name, it’s less any pastoral associations than the intricate and complex implications of the structure that resonate most strongly.

With Birtwistle’s brassy exuberance echoing around a near empty hall (yes, despite a degree of “popular” success in recent years, the composer still has the power to empty the concert hall), admirers were well served by the Sinfonietta’s artistry and well-versed ease in this repertoire.

There are no premieres from the composer in this year’s season but the birthday celebrations continue next week with Birtwistle’s magnificent opera The Mask of Orpheus (Act 2) at Prom 39.

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More on London Sinfonietta
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PSM 2: London Sinfonietta/Atherton @ Cadogan Hall, London
Prom 27: London Sinfonietta/Atherton @ Royal Albert Hall, London