The London Sinfonietta’s ‘Spectrum of Sound’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haas, Xenakis, Levi, and Vivier: London Sinfonietta, André de Ridder (conductor). Purcell Room, London, 27.2.2015 (MB)

Georg Friedrich Haas – Open Spaces (United Kingdom premiere)
Xenakis – Aroura
Mica Levi – Greezy (world première, London Sinfonietta commission)
Claude Vivier – Zipangu

This was the first of two London Sinfonietta concerts, collectively called ‘Spectrum of Sound’. The second would take place the following evening, presenting works by Scelsi, Ligeti, Murail, and Haas; I only managed to catch the first. It was, I suppose, encouraging that it sold out – except for those who failed to secure tickets! – but I was a little surprised that it took place in the Purcell Room rather than the next-door Queen Elizabeth Hall, which would have enabled a larger audience to hear an interesting programme.

Georg Friedrich Haas seems popular at the moment – at least in certain new music circles. The London Sinfonietta gave a wonderful performance not so long ago of his in vain. This later, 2007 work, written in memory of James Tenney, was the only one to add to the evening’s basic string ensemble. In addition to six violins, two violas, two cellos, and two double basses (all strings ‘retuned’, that is, along microtonal lines), we heard also the excellent work of two stereophonic percussionists. The swarming sounds to be heard throughout the string ensemble at times put me in mind of Ligeti, although I am not sure whether that were ‘influence’ as such, nor whether it would matter if it were. There was revealed, as was the case with in vain, a fine sense of instrumental drama, not least in a great, almost orchestral crescendo. Interest – dramatic in its way – also lies in the ‘shadowing’ of one half of the strings (that is, three violins, one each of viola, cello, and double bass) by the other half, each tuned a sixth of a tone lower. (The composer’s helpful note made this clear.) Open strings, not quite as one might expect them to sound, perhaps resound all the more overtly, or rather might seem to do so, in the new context.

Xenakis’s presence on concert programmes remains all too rare. This most uncompromising of composers never fails to make the strongest of impressions, at least in a remotely competent performance. Here, as throughout, the London Sinfonietta under André de Ridder certainly offered more than that, allowing one to trust in its guidance – always a crucial matter in new music (and I think we can still call a Xenakis piece from 1971 that). ‘Aroura, Homer’s earth,’ to quote the composer, ‘precedes Antikhthon, and represents the sound textures of the earth (the word is from the same root as “area” or “arena” in the Romance languages). The first impression the eye receives of the earth is of textures, e.g., fields, words, or bare soil; similarly, the first impression the ear receives of sound is of textures.’ As ever with Xenakis, ‘elemental’ very much seemed the apt word for such impressions, however clichéd it might have become. One heard kinship in the swarming, but difference too in the variety of interplay, continuation, and imitation between instruments. Lines interlocked but also seemed to continue determinedly according to their own (would-be scientific?) necessity. There was drama too, perhaps more ‘conventionally’ framed than one might have expected – or perhaps that was a matter of the narrative coherence the conductor and ensemble imparted to their performance. Glissandi, for instance, could be considered as a group to generate form, necessarily heard through time – and ‘felt’, as it were, through time, too, given the undeniably visceral nature of Xenakis’s music.

Following the interval, we heard the world première of Mica Levi’s Greezy, the title, according to the composer, denoting ‘a word used to describe a character who shows no remorse, who will do something bad without worrying about the consequences. It’s a kind of “hard core” description of strength through lack of compassion and fearlessness’. The work’s processional quality – Levi herself spoke of it as dirge-like – seems preoccupied with slowing, not just slowness, of time. A pair of cellos seems almost to step back in time, evoking to this listener’s ears resonances of Purcellian viols. The performance as a whole benefited from a splendidly rich string sound from the London Sinfonietta. Perhaps one of the work’s most immediately notable features is a wide oscillating vibrato, to which de Ridder drew attention, inspired, it seems, by the sound of electronic synthesisers.

Claude Vivier’s Zipangu shares with Greezy an opening concerned with what we might consider to be ‘repeated notes’, but which in context had a rather different effect, soon sonically modulating, from that which they might have had in broadly Classical repertoire. Simon Blendis’s virtuosic violin solo, superlatively played, initiated – or at least seemed to initiate, though it was not quite the first instance of such writing – responses from other instrumentalists, within what Vivier considered to be ‘the frame of a single melody’. (Zipangu, by the way, is a name given to Japan at the time of Marco Polo.) Differentiated bowing techniques contribute to the sonic tapestry, through which structure seems both to emerge and to be mediated. A ‘Spectrum of Sound’, then, was certainly what we heard.

This concert will be broadcast on Hear and Now, BBC Radio 3, on Saturday 11 April, 10 p.m.

Mark Berry

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