Ensemble intercontemporain in a Programme of Questing Intensity

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Maderna, Messiaen, Schoeller, Berio, Ravel, Franceschini: Ensemble intercontemporain. Wigmore Hall, London, 20.6.2017. (CC)

Debussy – Première Rapsodie (1909/10)
Maderna – Viola (1971)
Messiaen- Le Merle noir (1951)
Schoeller-  Madrigal (1994)
Berio – Sequenza I (1958)
Ravel – Violin Sonata in G (1923-27)
Franceschini – Les Excentriques: Traité physionomique à l’usage des curieux (2016, UK premiere)

The Ensemble intercontemporain (to use the capitalisation employed on the group’s own website) is one of the finest chamber groups specialising in contemporary music, as this challenging but intensely rewarding evening demonstrated. The mix of the familiar with the ultra-new, even the very mix of composers, spoke of a questing intensity in the programming.

Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie for clarinet and piano was given a simply superb performance by Jérôme Comte and Hidéki Nagano.  Both players demonstrated exquisite control of their instruments. Comte’s beautifully in-tune clarinet and his perfectly fluid legato essentially made the performance; Nagano’s playing was revealed as wonderfully sensitive, a trait that was repeatedly confirmed as the evening progressed.

The name of Bruno Maderna (1920-1973) is well known to all modernists, of course, and his contribution here was the open form Viola of 1971. The piece can also be played by viola d’amore (in which case the title is changed to reflect that); the performer is given plenty of choice as to how the various fragments provided by Maderna are presented. Disjunct, certainly, but the prevailing impression of the performance was quizzical: the music’s surface seemed to be perpetually posing questions. Perhaps it’s not the most convincing piece, but one had to admire violist Odile Auboin’s preternaturally pure harmonics.

No doubting the stature of Messiaen’s Le merle noir (1951), however, especially in this glittering performance by Sophie Cherrier and Nagano. Counterpoint was beautifully handled, and Cherrier’s technique is simply stellar. It was a treat before the work by the one living composer of the first half, Philippe Schoeller (born 1957). His ten-minute Madrigal, scored for piano quartet, comes with a rather wordy set of comments by the composer that, sadly, told us little. Some record collectors might know Schoeller from a couple of releases on the Stradivarius label. The piece relies on gesture rather too much, and was certainly helped no end by the dexterity of Nagano. Perhaps the key to the title is the exploration of “states between joy and melancholy.” If the work aims to ask questions rather than deliver answers, at least it succeeds in that.

After the interval we heard Berio’s Sequenza I. Dating from 1958 and for flute, Sequenza I, played by memory by Sophie Cherrier, was notable for its dynamic range and its superbly delivered multiphonics.

The one disappointment of the evening was Ravel’s G major Violin Sonata (No.2, given the 1897 Sonata). Violinist Jeanne-Marie Conquer seemed ill at ease. It wasn’t a problem that she played from a copy, but it was a problem that she seemed unnecessarily wedded to it. The flexibility of the Blues movement was rather lost, and her sound was on the abrasive side. Interestingly, though, in the context of its bedfellows, one could not escape hearing the voice of Dutilleux poking through as one wondered just how much the piece influenced that later composer.

A co-commission between the Wigmore Hall and André Hoffmann (of the Foundation Hoffmann), Matteo Franceschini’s Les Excentriques injected a whole lot of fun into the evening. Exploring the very idea of eccentricity via an homage to six unnamed eccentrics, Franceschini (an IRCAM-trained composer who studied with Alessandro Solbiati in Milan) sees eccentrics as stimulants to the creative imagination. The six characters display a “refusal to submit themselves to the laws of the everyday”; one could plausibly posit the same for Franceschini’s music. Sometimes Franceschini does not quite allow tunes into the music’s surface, but he does allow their shadows. From the glacial and nocturnal to the very identifiably French gaieté of the finale, Franceschini’s mode of delivery is utterly charming and always hypnotic. The composer clearly has great skill (the work is impeccably scored) and great imagination, but he has a wonderful sense of humour too. A trip to his website  confirms this sense of humour beyond all doubt.

Colin Clarke

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