Music of Our Time Championed Again by Ensemble Intercontemporain

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Birtwistle, Carter, Holliger, Cage, Ubaldini: Ensemble Intercontemporain (Sophie Cherrier [flute]; Martin Adámek [clarinet]; Jens McNamara [horn]; Didier Pateau [oboe]; Paul Riveaux [bassoon]), Wigmore Hall, London, 19.3.2018. (CC)

Birtwistle – Five Distances for Five Instruments
Carter – Retracing. Retracing II. Esprit rude/Esprit doux
Holliger – Sonata for Oboe
Cage – Music for Wind Instruments
Ubaldini – In the backyard (world premiere)

It is always good to see the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Wigmore. The sheer weight of their expertise in modern and contemporary repertoire is consistently remarkable, their programming a joy and always stimulating. This particular programme was just over an hour long, with no interval.

The combination of Birtwistle, Carter, Holliger, Cage and Ubaldini seemed initially to have scared off swathes of people: the Wigmore’s corridors were remarkably empty and quiet before the concert. Deserted, one might say. The actual audience was a fair showing, in the event (a sell-out was perhaps never on the cards).

It was a nice touch to start with music from the UK: Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Five Distances for Five Instruments of 1992. Birtwistle’s predilection for theatre in concert works was perhaps reflected in the layout, with all players standing, horn in the centre of the stage at the back, clarinet and bassoon nearer and at an angle, and flute and oboe at the very front of the stage and at the edges. The sense of freshness to the playing, and the sheer confidence, was remarkable, especially in the hocketing sections, while a chordal lament made huge emotional impact. The sheer control and beauty of Martin Adámek’s quiet final clarinet note was remarkable.

Carter’s two Retracing pieces were paired together, the first from 2002 for bassoon and performed on stage; the second, from 2009 and for horn, was performed from the balcony, so the sound came from behind and above us. Originally written for Peter Kolkay, Retracing for bassoon ‘retraces’ the bassoon solo that closes Carter’s Asko Concerto. In Paul Riveaux’s hands, the piece’s tremolos almost seemed like chords. Riveaux is a superbly agile performer; as was Jens McNamara for the horn Retracing. The piece calls for rapid-fire passages of machine-like accuracy, fully delivered here. But more, the idea of the spatial distancing gave the impression of the horn answering the bassoon, which helped in the pairing of the pieces. The sense of flow was continued by oboist Didier Pateau entering onstage while the horn piece continued.

Heinz Holliger was of course famous for his successes as professional oboist, but his activities of a composer always repay exploration. His Sonata for Oboe of 1956-57 is playful, often angular of line and, inevitably, virtuoso. All credit to Pateau, whose command of his instrument is beyond criticism; his actual sound, too, is warm and inviting. Perhaps the piece itself outstays its welcome a tad, the ideas not quite memorably worked through, but Pateau made the best possible case.

Carter’s Esprit rude/Esprit doux for flute and clarinet of 1984 was performed with both performers on the extreme left of the stage. The music found the players chasing each other playfully, Sophie Cherrier and Adámek at the top of their game in the ‘Esprit rude’ part. The musical material is derived from the name Pierre Boulez (although the actual title refers to the pronunciation of Classical Greek words); it was written for that composer’s sixtieth birthday. The repose of ‘Esprit doux’ was simply lovely.

It was great to see some music by Cage on the programme, his Music for Wind Instruments. Now seated, the wind quintet is broken into Trio (flute, clarinet and bassoon, movement I) and Duo (oboe and horn, Movement II) before the finale (Quintet) brings everyone together. Written in 1938, the piece uses a twelve-note row, but the row is fractured into cells which, when tossed around in the first movement, gives a lovely, playful gait to the music. The lyricism of the long lines of the central Duo was beautifully maintained by Cherrier and McNamara before the finale brought us to an appreciation of the full impact of all five instrumentalists playing in tutti. A phenomenally interesting piece.

Finally, the world premiere of Blaise Ubaldini’s In the Backyard of 2017. Ubaldini has been part of the introductory course at IRCAM. His new piece references David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the way Lynch manipulates space via ‘loops and gaps in time’ (to quote the composer’s own notes). The piece is dedicated to two of the characters from Twin Peaks, Janey-E and Dougie. Ubaldini asks his players to shout and make ‘shhhhh’ sounds while saturating the texture with trills. Oboe multiphonics, another ‘effect’, were wonderfully managed by Pateau. There is humour here, too, which helped the piece to just sustain its duration. Though it was nice to end with a world premiere, there was more substance elsewhere in the evening.

Colin Clarke 

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