Queen Elizabeth Hall, Friday 2 April 2004
Jonathan Cole Penumbra
Thea Musgrave Space Play
Ben Foskett Violin Concerto world premiere
Magnus Lindberg Jubilees London premiere
Oliver Knussen conductor
Clio Gould violin
Composition, the art of making, is often equally concerned with remaking. In the week when the Royal Philharmonic Society announced the final choices in the first round of its Encore project – selecting neglected recent orchestral works to be given a second hearing – Oliver Knussen’s London Sinfonietta programme occupied itself with both the new and the rediscovered, as well as illustrating how composers can make pieces and, more than that, whole oeuvres out of a canny mix of difference and repetition.
The Sinfonietta’s Conductor Laureate introduced his players to three brand new or recent works, and reacquainted today’s principals with an unconducted piece Thea Musgrave wrote for their 1974 predecessors-in-virtuosity. Space Play distributed five wind and four string soloists across the stage, and filled its nineteen minutes with an at first predictable but increasingly absorbing series of obbligatos, cadenzas and dialogues. If one wishes Musgrave were less beholden to what is often fairly tame instrumental stereotyping, this was a good deal more harmonically inventive than her more recent essays in the genre; and it fulfilled its brief – as a concerto for mini-orchestra, conducted ‘from within’ by players cueing one another – with consummate practical skill.
The trope of reworking has many different guises. Ligeti has used the same melodic formula in every significant work since his Piano Concerto of 1985 (with the Nonsense Madrigals the exception that proves the rule). Composers from Birtwistle to Lindberg seem to produce statement after major statement by reworking the same basic matrix, in ways which sometimes recall the old joke that Bruckner wrote the same symphony nine times. But the variation principle is as old as music itself, and there’s no shame in focused invention within a predefined framework.
Jonathan Cole’s Penumbra, opening tonight’s programme, presented yet another face of the phenomenon: this was the first outing for a revised version of a piece premiered last year by a pared-down London Symphony Orchestra. Remaking was at work within the fabric of the piece, too, the title denoting both the conceptual inspiration of an image explored through its reflections, an object approached ever more nearly through its shadows, and the musical ‘shadows’ which effected this formal aspiration as the piece grew backwards and forwards from its central viola solo. With this kernel of intervallic and melodic substance, Cole is able to invent both the rhythmic propulsions of the middle-movement scherzo and the more sombre colours of its outer neighbours. The finale in particular achieved an uncommon eloquence of instrumental speech, with a real sense of meaningful space around the notes as the piece returned to where it began.
Ben Foskett’s Violin Concerto, meanwhile, was a brand new commission establishing dialogue with one of the most traditional of musical genres. The opening chain of descending fourths carried sufficient Bergian echoes to lend the new work generic respectability, even if the ensemble’s relentlessly accompanimental role might have strained some listeners’ idea of what makes a concerto. But beautiful harmonies and colours ensured the discourse was never boring, and I enjoyed Foskett’s portrait of a rapt, absorbed soloist, her self-communings supported by an ensemble which occasionally simply stopped – not just to rest, but to listen harder. Perhaps more could have been made of this expressive feature if the roles had been sometimes reversed, with passages for ensemble alone inserted to create a greater sense of space in which the protagonist, too, might pause to listen.
Dedicated to and performed by the Sinfonietta’s own Clio Gould, with whom the 26-year-old Foskett worked closely during the compositional process, this is the second work yielded up by the ensemble’s Blue Touch Paper scheme. This admirable initiative, which shows early signs of nothing but success, is designed to provide young or younger composers with the space to take risks, as well as allowing them contact with performers and composers of international class to counsel and supervise their work on a new piece.
Foskett’s ‘composer mentor’ had been Magnus Lindberg, who flew in to be a surprise guest at the pre-concert talk this evening, and it was with a piece by the leading Finnish composer that Knussen concluded the concert. Here the creative inspiration was most obviously bound up with re-writings – appropriately enough, given the piece’s association with Pierre Boulez, rewriter par excellence. Having written a short piano piece for the composer-conductor’s seventy-fifth birthday, Lindberg elaborated five more movements to form a suite alternating fast and slow and amplifying aspects of the incident-packed, kaleidoscopic original. Jubilees (2002–3) then scores the resulting set of six pieces for a piano-less ensemble: adding and varying lines and colours, filling in what the piano originals can’t or don’t say.
Despite a disconcerting tendency for the most striking moments to be the least original ones (with a trace of what sounded like Tippett’s Ritual Dances in the second movement among the less expected echoes of other musics), these sharply characterised and well-contrasted miniatures provided moment-to-moment delights. Indeed, Jubilees is the best new Lindberg piece I have heard for some time, prompting the thought that for all his liking for broad orchestral canvases, here is a composer who is perhaps at his strongest with the medium ensemble line-up of tonight’s performers or of their French cousins in the Ensemble Intercontemporain, who commissioned the work. Not that we were delivered entirely from orchestral bombast. The grandiloquence of the fourth movement’s close seemed unjustified, and, after a delicate woodwind moto perpetuo, Lindberg returned to the manner in the closing passacaglia/chorale. This finale was the real let-down: a tiresome formal ‘solution’ whose intended exposition of the piece’s governing harmonic framework can only come across as boring (if the harmonic connections are not perceived) or smug (there is insufficient expressive motivation for this predictable technical ploy).
But, all in all, this was by some way the most satisfactory programme the Sinfonietta has put together in recent months. The playing was consistently involving – special mention must be given to Martin Owen’s directorial horn-playing in the Musgrave – and the music as stimulating and as varied as new music ought to be. All that hard reworking really does pay off!