John Fallas


Concert reviews and other writings on music







Anthony Gilbert: 70th-birthday retrospective

Purcell Room, Monday 12 July 2004




Marie Vassiliou soprano

Julien Feltrin recorders

Quentin Poole conductor


[see bottom of review for programme]



Humour in contemporary music is an elusive creature. Often thought a casualty of the avant-garde’s high-mindedness, it has also fallen on the wrong side of a supposed antinomy between art music and popular music (‘culture’ versus ‘entertainment’). But in relation to the ‘great tradition’, the new at least has variety on its side. Beethoven couldn’t have made an operatic overture out of doorbells or car-horns (as Ligeti does in Le grand macabre). At least since Debussy and probably from Berlioz on, it has been possible to predicate greatness on a stance of marginality – eccentricity of harmony, form, not least of instrumentation. And it’s in this realm of the rich and strange that rarefied beauty and offbeat humour can turn out to be surprising bedfellows.


If it were not for this history, it might seem curious that either quality should appear in a composer in whom the will to structure is markedly greater than the will to expression. But consider Anthony Gilbert – whose new accordion piece Rose luisante at the Park Lane Group in January was one of the most extraordinarily beautiful things I have heard this year – and behold a composer with a predilection for unusual and striking timbres and a nice line in witty titles (Six of the Bestiary, Nine or Ten Osannas).


It wasn’t always thus; and the background is revealing, as tonight’s wide chronological span well demonstrated. Gilbert came late to composition, studying with Alexander Goehr in the early 1960s at Morley College. The intensely Bergian Elegy for piano sat uncomfortably in Endymion’s Purcell Room programme tonight but set in relief Gilbert’s subsequent stylistic progress. Seven years on, he was setting out to explore an idiosyncratic preoccupation with detailed equivalences between music and language in a piece for Alan Hacker, the clarinettist strongly associated with Goehr’s ‘Manchester’ contemporaries Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle; but the result, heard tonight in a committed performance by Mark van de Wiel, seemed in the shadow of Davies’s Hymnos (from 1967, a year earlier). Spell Respell was much of its time and intellectual climate, though in relation to its year of composition it surely represented the superego of structural linguistics rather than the id of revolutionary expression.


Gilbert himself moved to Manchester later, in the early 1970s, and began to find a more individual voice at the same time as establishing a successful composition department at the newly rechristened Royal Northern College of Music. Indeed, the most successful of the ‘tributes for Tony’ premiered tonight were from younger composers – some, like Simon Holt, former students of this much-respected teacher – and other compositional ‘outsiders’.


Recognising and valuing a composer’s voice can be a difficult exercise, especially in the case of music as neglected as much of this. With the sixties apprenticeship past, it’s already hard to identify a close British parallel to the anarchic antics of O’Grady Music (1971). As for the last three decades, it’s clear that the positive identity of Gilbert’s music stems at least in part from what it rejects: like Davies and Birtwistle (Goehr less so, though his teacher Messiaen is the clearest precedent for these tendencies), but with wholly individual results, looking back to medieval music and outwards to Eastern traditions.


In Gilbert’s case an increasing absorption in Australian nature and culture also yielded an alignment with David Lumsdaine, fellow explorer of the terrain of Australian birdsong and soundscapes. The engagement with Indian classical music and art produced sympathetic resonances for a nascent interest in temporal structures which circle around a gradually revealed essence (in Western terms, comparable to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘inscape’) rather than progressing towards a quasi-Beethovenian goal. Again, the modern is pitted against the mainstream Western tradition.


By the time of the Machaut-based String Quartet No 3, we find Gilbert producing something original and distinctive from the medieval influence, too: a taut seven-minute recasting of Western art music’s most hallowed instrumental formation as a breathlessly hocketing hurdy-gurdy band, tonal refinement cast aside and two-hundred-plus years of musical history bypassed.


Gilbert is, finally, a curiously approachable enigma, if indeed the enigma isn’t in the very approachability. Tonal/modal echoes and elements of almost minimalist rhythmic repetition pervade works of the 1990s such as Igórochki, but in contexts so unexpected it takes some time to register their presence. This utterly charming little recorder concerto ended the night on an absolute high, with pied piper Julien Feltrin the evening’s unassuming star. But as the notes faded, one might have begun to wonder what tied all these diverse inspirations together.


A substantial pageant nonetheless, the event left an impression due in no small measure to intelligent, thoughtful programming and strongly characterised and convincing performances, from all the instrumentalists concerned, of some demanding music. This kind of hard work and care over presentation really does pay off. Soprano Marie Vassiliou drew an eager audience in to two vocal works which, again, neatly showed the stylistic changes wrought in Gilbert’s music by twenty-five years of passing time. Julien Feltrin, standing in at short notice, could not have been a better advocate for his instrument or this composer’s endlessly inventive writing for it. Everyone else, on the platform and behind the scenes, deserves equally high praise.


© 2004 John Fallas 



6.00pm Tributes for Tony all pieces world premieres


Nicola LeFanu/David Lumsdaine Night Song with Frogs cimbalom with recorded soundscape

Ross Edwards Chirrup descant recorder

John Alexander postcard from Tanglewood double bass

Alexander Goehr A’s and G’s soprano saxophone

Anthony Payne Conundrum cello

Janice Misurell-Mitchell Omaggio a(n) Tony soprano

Colin Matthews Fanfare for Tony viola

Simon Holt brief candles clarinet

Martin Butler Hunding horn

Peter Maxwell Davies Judas Mercator trombone

Harrison Birtwistle Gilbert Ground clarinet, soprano sax, horn, viola, cello

David Lumsdaine Serenade recorded soundscape



7.30pm works by Anthony Gilbert


Elegy 1961 piano solo

Long White Moonlight 1980 soprano and electric double bass

Tinos 2004 soprano, clarinet and vibraphone world premiere

O’Grady Music 1971 clarinet, cello and toy instruments

String Quartet No 3 ‘super hoqueto David’ 1987

Spell Respell 1968 electric basset clarinet and piano

Igórochki 1992 solo recorders, percussion, cimbalom, guitar and string quartet





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