The London Sinfonietta at London’s Meltdown Festival

Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies : Leigh Melrose (baritone), London Sinfonietta, Baldur Brönnimann (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 16.6.2011 (Gdn)

Birtwistle : Virelai
: Secret Theatre
Maxwell Davies
: Eight Songs for a Mad King

On first appearances, the Southbank’s annual Meltdown Festival would seem to revel in the randomness of its programming. What other festival would include a concert of Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies for which the programme book is filled almost exclusively with essays about Ray Davies? But there is logic here, and the London Sinfonietta’s contribution to this year’s event sits squarely at the centre of its theme. Davies oversees the festival in the year of the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, so Britishness, eccentricity and innovation are the guiding principles of the programming. And what better contribution could the London Sinfonietta make than a concert featuring seminal works from two of this country’s greatest and most eccentric composers?

Performances of Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre are frustratingly rare, so it is as well that the piece is just as good on record. What you miss from the CD are the movements around the stage. An empty platform is set up to the left of the ensemble, and as players join the main melodic line, they move over to it, forming a sort of variable concertante group. But the musical distinction between what happens on and off the platform is clear enough, so this isn’t really necessary. The performance from the London Sinfonietta was passionate and dramatic – I say the London Sinfonietta, but the ensemble seems to have turned into a scratch band, with different players on the stage every time they perform. I think there was a total of three performers this evening that I had heard perform as part of the Sinfonietta before. The changes don’t seem to be affecting the standards too much, although the ensemble of the woodwinds wasn’t as tight as in the past, and the control of the brass sound in the climaxes could have been better.

The concert opened with a more recent Birtwistle score, Virelai. Nothing of any particular interest to report here, I’m afraid. Some Renaissance tunes are given the Birtwistle treatment, played out of synch with their accompaniments and subjected to some exotic orchestration. Technically, it all works, and the composer is still able to give everything he writes that amazing sense of inner purpose that makes every compositional decision seem providential. But programming it with one of his greatest scores does this new work little justice.

The Eight Songs for a Mad King also have a tendency to overshadow, and they were certainly the main attraction this evening. The performance could perhaps be described as semi-staged, without props or costumes, and certainly without cages. But what really matters in a performance of this work is the soloist, and Leigh Melrose put in a formidable performance. He has a great voice, but his acting ability is what makes him ideal for the role. He is a tall man, with long gangly limbs. He was lit from above by a single spotlight, and that was about all the staging support he got, yet he was utterly convincing. The work calls for a soloist who is a singer, a speaker, an actor – a performer in the broadest sense – and Melrose ticks all the boxes. The vocal requirements are beyond the realms of possibility, so it seems churlish to list the few failings of his musical performance. For instance, the first octave of his falsetto is clear and penetrating, but the octave above that lacks power. Of course it does but it is hardly worth noting. The instrumentalists gave him excellent support, sometimes competing with him at the climaxes, but that is in the spirit of the piece too. I thought it was a shame that the London Sinfonietta gave away the twist in the violin part (which I’m not going to reveal here) implicitly in the programme note and explicitly on Twitter a few hours before the performance. Perhaps everyone in the audience had heard it before, but I doubt it.

Certainly, nobody in the audience will have seen the part of the mad king acted as well as this before. The evening was a fair one for the London Sinfonietta (whoever they are), a worthy contribution to Ray Davies’ Meltdown Festival, and a triumph for Leigh Melrose.

Gavin Dixon