Premières

Schnittke Week – Hommage à Edvard Grieg, Symphony No. 8 (UK Première), Concerto Grosso No. 2 & (K)ein Sommernachtstraum

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The fifth and final concert featured in this Schnittke Week was broadcast on 15 January 2001, and featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eri Klaas. The first part of the concert opened with something of an oddity: Hommage à Edvard Grieg, composed for the 150th anniversary of Grieg’s birth in 1993. It takes a healthy chunk of Grieg’s music as its starting point, but despite the energy of Schnittke’s variations on this theme, there’s never a cogent sense of quite what he’s trying to do—or, indeed, why. The two composers’ voices stay stubbornly separate, merely juxtaposed, never unified; all of which may be the point, but Schnittke makes that point so much better in other pieces.

It was followed by the UK Première of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 8, composed in 1994, and the last symphony he was able to complete before his death four years later. The first movement (Moderato, as ever) is an exercise in obsession. An extremely uncomfortable melody, angular in the extreme, starts in the horns, is passed to the strings, to the trombones, back to the horns, and so on and so on. Delivered above unwavering pedals, Schnittke grips tenaciously to this melody, transposing it but never daring to alter it; the effect becomes hypnotic, enhanced in the background by the pedals evolving into increasingly dense clusters. First harpsichord and then celesta present an alternate idea, a simple rising and falling line, its intervals expanding and contracting, which becomes the new focus of attention; but ‘focus’ is perhaps the wrong word, as the more this new idea is heard, the more turgid and unclear it becomes. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 1, Fragments (World Première) & Symphony No. 4

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The second concert being featured in this week of music by Alfred Schnittke comprised two of his major compositions plus the world première of a work unfinished at his death. It was broadcast on 13 January 2001, and was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

The concert began with perhaps Schnittke’s most-performed work, the Concerto Grosso No. 1. Opening movement ‘Preludio’ begins on prepared piano, gently clattering its way through a nursery rhyme-type melody. It’s answered with a hocketed idea in the solo violins, rocking back and forth on adjacent semitones (one can see already where this may be going: clusters a-go-go), while the lower strings form a backdrop of sustained harmonics. There’s a brief soloistic flourish in the violins, the violas slither down their strings to a bottom pedal note, the harpsichord teases its keyboard, and a gorgeous second idea begins. Above a glacial viola chord, a violin solo explores a melody at the bottom of its register; it’s not specified in the score, but in this performance Clio Gould opts to play near the bridge, making the line effectively fragile, and causing some delicious overtones to appear at the edges. A duet is formed, and the harpsichord re-announces the nursery tune; a curt, loud response in all the strings (tutti for the first time), brings the movement to an end, the violins’ hocketing idea now widened from a semitone to sevenths and ninths. You’d be forgiven for thinking a composer like Vivaldi had a hand in the second movement. Titled ‘Toccata’, it’s a diabolical parody of Vivaldi, overstuffed with ridiculously strict and stretto canons, Schnittke at his most caustically comical. Read more

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Stephen McNeff – ConcertO Duo (World Première) & Kaija Saariaho – D’OM LE VRAI SENS (UK Première)

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A fortnight ago, the BBC Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 80th birthday with a concert including a pair of premières, both concertos: one for percussion by Stephen McNeff (composed for the boisterous O Duo) and a clarinet concerto from Kaija Saariaho.

McNeff instructs the orchestra to establish the mood, the first few minutes of the opening movement filled with big, emphatic gestures. The contrast of the soloists’ entry—starting simply, using only their hands to slap, brush and tickle the instruments—is massive, and makes for a highly effective start. Influences quickly fly in both directions; the soloists echo and maintain the considerable momentum already established; in return, the percussion’s abrupt, restless material leads to hectic, spikey figurations in the orchestra. A marimba idea heralds a dramatic reduction in tempo, and with it a lyrical episode, in which the strings’ music is especially rich, their harmonies familiar but searching. The remaining few minutes are a tussle between these two moods, the more frantic ideas thrusting forth when they can; and while it’s the softer ripostes that ultimately claim the movement, the brass and timpani colour its conclusion with some brief, rather obstreperous gestures. Read more

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James MacMillan – Oboe Concerto (World Première)

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On 15 October, James MacMillan‘s Oboe Concerto received its first performance at Birmingham’s Town Hall, conducted by MacMillan himself. Taking the solo rôle was Nicholas Daniel, a performer who has brought numerous new oboe works to the world, usually at the more mainstream end of the contemporary spectrum. Structurally, at least, MacMillan’s work is entirely familiar, falling into the traditional three movements, even adhering to the hackneyed fast-slow-fast convention.

The first movement is an exercise in rapidity, Daniel barely given any moments to breathe amidst the endless scales and arpeggios. After a few minutes, having continued in like manner without let up, just as one begins to wonder if the movement’s actually going somewhere, MacMillan’s sense of timing reveals itself; the busy texture surrounding the oboe gradually disappears (returning to the movement’s opening gestures), and a brief, soft, distant string chorale begins, its solemnity a curious combination of Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams. All of which makes precisely zero impression on the oboe; on the contrary, it throws itself into a dithyrambic frenzy, its gestures coalescing on a nervously energetic trill. It comes as something of a shock to find the opening movement ended so soon (barely five minutes’ duration), just as it was starting to pique one’s interest. Read more

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Magnus Lindberg – Al largo (UK Première)

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A little over a week ago, on 13 October, came the first UK performance of Magnus Lindberg‘s new orchestral work, Al largo, given by the London Philarmonic Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. The title is an interesting one; as well as suggesting the musical term, associated with considerable slowness, the expression in fact refers to “being offshore, specifically referring to the moment when you reach the open sea and you don’t see the coast anymore, and what is before you is vast” (from Lindberg’s programme note).

The opening is all grand fanfares, dominated by the heavy brass (but nicely flecked with muted trumpets), out of which emerges a music in search of its own momentum. Bass drums make leaden stabs at something pulse-like, the rest of the orchestra respond with an inchoate morass of melodic tendrils; with Lindberg’s title in mind—and without wishing to get too Donald Tovey about it—this opening episode is highly suggestive of a boat slowly gathering speed. The grandiosity of the moment isn’t over-stated, however; Lindberg treads carefully through the momentous triads and imposing bass pedals, peppering the texture with softer woodwind flourishes, introducing a rapid chromatic motif that will become important later. After a short time it becomes clear that a pulse—at least, a clearly delineated one—isn’t a prerequisite for momentum, and the music charts a new path, one made particularly vibrant by the strings’ lush chords. Read more

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Vale of Glamorgan Festival: World Premières by Arvo Pärt and Arlene Sierra

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On 9 September, a concert given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music was for the most part concerned with the music of Arvo Pärt, featuring a new work commissioned by the festival, In Spe for wind quintet and strings. It’s a short piece, in which the winds take precedence at first: horn, oboe and bassoon take turns stating the work’s fundamental idea. The rest of the work is essentially a series of what E. E. Cummings might have called “nonvariations” on that theme; the melody is draped in constantly changing decoration, the voice moving between registers, inversions and retrogrades adding what little spice there is to be gleaned from Pärt’s agonisingly constricted use of material and harmony. Surprisingly, it all feels terribly technical; while the temptation with so much of Pärt’s music is simply to drift, switched off and blissed out, on the surface, i found myself pulled under during In Spe, staring at what lay beneath; i don’t think this is due purely to the paucity of invention on display in the work; Howard Skempton’s Lento goes round in even more demonstrably regular circles for much of its duration, but there the result is hypnotic and entirely convincing. Somehow, the material here all feels terribly workaday, almost like an exercise; unfortunately, as neither the inner workings nor their surface sheen are that interesting, this militates against In Spe, enfeebling it, even in its brief attempts at more dynamic strength. Arvo Pärt’s fans will be delighted; all the ‘tintinnabuli’ stuff is present and correct, and the piece presents them with absolutely nothing unfamiliar, nothing to think about. Read more

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Tim Benjamin and Francis Poulenc – Purcell Room, 23/09/2010

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Last Thursday i journeyed to London for a small-scale concert at the Purcell Room. On paper, the concert was being given by the ensemble Radius, but in practice only the pianist was present, supporting a quartet of singers. i’ll admit to being disappointed about that; i’ve not encountered Radius before, so it was frustrating to come away still having not encountered them. Two pieces were performed: Poulenc’s one-act opera La Voix Humaine preceded by the UK première of a new work by Radius’ director Tim Benjamin titled Le Gâteau d’Anniversaire.

Benjamin’s work can’t, in any accurate sense, be called an opera, comprising a single scene of barely 30 minutes’ duration. What Benjamin has produced, in fact, is akin more to a dramatic scena, except that it’s intended to be funny, so i guess we should rightly call it a dramatic scena buffa (or something like that). What unfolds is a dream sequence in which the protagonist, Louis, a baker by trade, receives visions from a pair of women who, at length, coax, encourage and downright insist that the reluctant Louis disregard bread-making for a time and bake them a cake. In the epilogue, Louis is awakened by his sisters, only to be reminded it’s their birthday, and that he’d agreed to provide his services to mark the occasion; no resistance from Louis this time, and the preparations begin. That’s it; except that Tim Benjamin’s lengthy programme note expounds the notion that the work is a “theatrical investigation” into “the oppression of, and liberation from, accepted convention and custom” as well as “the power of the subconscious to influence the conscious self through the medium of dreams”. Read more

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