The Theseus Ensemble: Excellent Performances and Thoughtful Presentation of Two Important Contemporary Scores

30/04/2012

 Goehr and Carter: Theseus Ensemble, Geoffrey Paterson (conductor), Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 30.4.2012 (MB)

GoehrLyric Pieces (1974)
CarterTriple Duo (1982)

 

Jenny Doyne (flute/piccolo)
Kate Andrews (oboe/English horn)
Sarah Thurlow (clarinet/bass clarinet)
Rosie Burton (bassoon)
Adrian Uren (horn)
Chris Evans (trumpet)
Matthew Knight (trombone)
Stephen Burke (percussion)
Chris White (piano)
Florence Cooke (violin)
Jonathan Rees (cello)
Anthony Williams (double bass)

The Theseus Ensemble and Geoffrey Paterson continue to further their commitment both to perform challenging new music and to provide new ways for audiences to approach it, first and foremost amongst which are Paterson’s excellent spoken introductions with musical examples. Alexander Goehr’s Lyric Pieces were therefore introduced with brief comparisons between two of Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze and two passages from Goehr’s work, which is to a certain extent built upon structures and gestures to be found in its predecessor: nothing laboured, nor indeed forbiddingly technical, but a way in for listeners who may conceivably have fretted about what to expect. Derivation and transformation, in these particular cases from the eighth and ninth Schumann pieces (both Florestan), were presented with admirable clarity, as indeed was the performance as a whole, which benefited equally from purposive command of line. Particularly striking was the echt-Romantic horn melody of the second of the six pieces, ‘Sostenuto, ma non troppo lento’, which, when joined by muted trumpet proved suggestive, both in sonority and progress, of Webern’s transcription from the Musical Offering (Bach’s masterpiece another Goehr favourite, perhaps far from incidentally). The trombone added an almost chorale-like impression, again furthering the sense not only of refracted Bach but of Bach refracted via a refraction of German Romanticism. Stravinskian coolness from the ensemble’s woodwind offered a welcome counterpoint, in more than one sense. A sense of processional was doubtless furthered by timbral similarities with Varèse’s Octandre(the scoring is identical) and, inescapably, Symphonies of Wind Instruments.By contrast but also by connection, the liveliness of the third piece, both as work and performance, put me in mind of a more Germanic Pulcinella. The near-hypnotic repetitions of the fifth piece – already contextualised by that piano excerpt from the sixth Schumann piece – were heightened by intensification, again both in work and performance; this is no mere repetition, as Paterson’s keen rhythmic sense made clear. Indeed, there was a true spirit of the dance, both delightful and threatening. Echoes of the boisterous good spirits of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, surely a contender for the most life-affirming work of the twentieth century, were to be heard in the closing ‘Scherzando’, also possessed of an eloquent, wonderfully grainy bassoon soliloquy from Rosie Burton.

Paterson’s introduction to Elliott Carter’s Triple Duo presented the arresting image of a cocktail party, at which there are conversations between three pairs of people, more or less independent of each other and yet with some knowledge of and some reaction to the other conversations, finally closing with a conversation involving all six. Spatial separation between the three pairs heightened that way in for the listener; Carter may or may not approve, but there will always be other performances that do not adopt the experiment. It certainly offered clarity as well as visualisation for the first-time listener, so that the different varieties of ‘conversation’ – in rhythmic terms, triplets for flute and clarinet, twos and fours for violin and cello, slightly more elliptical groups of five for piano and percussion – might be more readily identified than would otherwise necessarily be the case. That in turn enabled one’s ear to devote a little more attention to the crucial intervallic characteristics of the different ‘conversations’ and eventually to the nature and implications of their combination. Again, rhythmic exactitude proved fundamental to the success of the performance, permitting one to delight in the almost Haydnesque sense of invention Carter typically brings to his material. Perhaps surprising is the frankly lyrical quality of some of his writing, heightened again in this performance.

It was excellent to observe so good-sized an audience for this Linbury lunchtime recital. Alas, it was considerably less than excellent to have to endure a number of persistently distracting noises-off – moaning, groaning, sometimes even shouting – from someone above. Whatever the reasons, and it may well have been that someone was ill, action should have been taken earlier by someone responsible. It was a pity, but ultimately music and performance won through.

Mark Berry

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