In concert – City of London Sinfonia @ Southwark Cathedral: Origin: This is CLS

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Monteverdi arr. Wick Toccata from ‘L’Orfeo’ (1607)
Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Tabakova
Frozen River Flows (2005)
Finnis
The Centre is Everywhere (2019)
Vasks
Music for the fleeting birds (1977)
Tabakova
Origin (2022) (world premiere)
Carter
A Fantasy about Purcell’s ‘Fantasia on one note’ (1975)
Tavener
The Hidden Face (1996)

Hugh Cutting (countertenor), Dan Bates (oboe), City of London Sinfonia / Alexandra Wood (violin)

Southwark Cathedral, London
Thursday 3 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood

When the young Richard Hickox assembled a performing group in 1971, his vision was an extended family of talented musicians coming together to project the enjoyment of their art onto their audience.

Just over 50 years on, Hickox may sadly no longer be with us but his vision, realised by the City of London Sinfonia, burns with an ever brighter flame. This celebration in Southwark Cathedral may have been a year late, due to the consequences of the pandemic, but it brought everything together in a programme blending the old with the new.

Great credit should go to the orchestra’s creative director and leader, Alexandra Wood, for choosing music that looked simultaneously forwards and backwards, while utilising the vast spaces offered by the cathedral in inspiring and imaginative ways.

The audience were free to roam around during the concert, which was a considerable plus, for acoustic hotspots could be found and exploited, while it was also possible to stand to one side in contemplation. The mood was relaxed but focused, with audience members chosing a mixture of both options. The only danger of this was unexpectedly finding yourself in front of a group of instrumentalists when they were about to play, meaning the focus would suddenly shift in your direction! This was a risk well worth taking, for the rewards were many.

Before the concert, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, Andrew Nunn, spoke warmly of the power of music to soothe the fevered mind, giving the pertinent Biblical example of David’s harp curing Saul’s war-torn temper, illustrated vividly by a stained-glass window depiction at the back of the church. The parallels with Russia and Ukraine were unmistakeable, and before the programme started everyone stood for the Ukraine national anthem.

The programme itself began under that very window, with Stephen Wick’s excellent arrangement of the Toccata from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the brass filling the cathedral from back to front with sonorous colours.

The baton then passed to the strings for an unforgettable account of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. This work was written for performance in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910, utilising the space in imaginative ways – and the City of London Sinfonia responded in kind, with the work’s solo group in the round in the nave, and the main body of the strings in the centre of the church. This was a deeply emotive performance, finding the intersection between the old of Tallis and Vaughan Williams’ own sweeping melodies and added-note harmonies. In doing so a composition that is often overplayed gained fresh insight, and, for your reviewer standing at the back of the church, a magical experience.

British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova has a close association with the Sinfonia. Frozen River Flows, an earlier work from 2005, appeared here in an arrangement for clarinet and percussion which was played in the south transept. This brightly coloured piece found Katherine Spencer’s clarinet evoking graceful lines not dissimilar to Poulenc, complemented by the richness of the vibraphone and crotales (antique cymbals), expertly managed by Chris Blundell.

We also heard Tabakova’s music in the world premiere of Origin, written for this concert. It was a brief but meaningful celebration placing violin soloist Alexandra Wood in the nave, with the accompanying musicians under the tower. Wood’s role was that of virtuoso, but she managed it carefully so that slower contributions from the strings and vibraphone were ideally balanced. Tabakova has a talent for the immediate creation of an atmosphere, and this may have been a relatively minimal piece but it left a lasting impression.

Complementing this was another work in the round of the nave, as 12 string players assembled for Edmund Finnis’s The Centre is Everywhere. This was a wholly appropriate choice, the soloists creating unusual and original sounds. On occasion the music swelled like the bellows of an accordion, then subsided to a barely audible whisper, then appeared to be reaching beyond the cathedral for the skies above. Finnis has an unusual and remarkable habit of writing music that becomes an out of body experience, and The Centre is Everywhere shows there is still so much more to achieve when writing for stringed instruments.

The programme turned to wind instruments for a timely reference to the troubles in Ukraine. Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks wrote Fleeting Birds in 1977 as an expression of his need for freedom. Restricted from travelling by the Soviet authorities, he made his feelings known through music. The City of London Sinfonia winds walked the length of the cathedral as they played, turning from joyous expressions of freedom and release to statements soured by compression, reflecting the composer’s earthbound plight.

Freedom lay in Elliott Carter’s Purcell Fantasy, richly expressed by the brass around a persistent middle C, before cutting without a break to John Tavener’s Hidden Face for a final contemplation. The stillness of this work is deceptive, achieved through great virtuosity from solo oboe and a countertenor, singing text written by Mother Maria. Oboist Dan Bates and singer Hugh Cutting were superb throughout, the latter floating his words effortlessly above the prayerful strings, whose sonorous tones were the ideal match for Bates’s keening oboe, which also scaled unfathomable heights with impressive ease.

It was a fitting way to finish a deeply felt concert and celebration, that of a performing group who continue to do their founder proud. Like their musical choices, the City of London Sinfonia look to the future, embracing new advances as well as nurturing past achievements while they do so. They deserve to continue as a treasured feature of the capital’s music making.

To read more about the City of London Sinfonia, visit their website – and for more on composers Dobrinka Tabakova and Edmund Finnis, click on their names

BCMG – Celebrating Carter

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Elliott Carter (above)
Mosaic (2004)
Bariolage (1992)
Two Controversies and a Conversation (2010/11)
Two Thoughts about the Piano (2007)
Double Trio (2011)
Epigrams (2012)

Town Hall, Birmingham; Sunday 28 January 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Little of Elliott Carter’s music was heard in Birmingham during his lifetime, but an account of the then recent song-cycle In Sleep, In Thunder remains vivid in the memory 35 years on. That was directed by Oliver Knussen, who was latterly assiduous in the scheduling and even commissioning of the composer with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, which this afternoon devoted a whole programme to Carter and was conducted for the first time by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

A composer who not only lived to a great age but continued writing up until his death meant that BCMG had a sizable number of pieces from which to choose. It was an astute move to open with Mosaic, as this eventful piece is a paradigm for that ‘late late style’ Carter evolved in his 90s. Harp is the first among equals here, Carter having spoken of his desire to explore techniques developed by inter-war virtuoso Carlos Salzedo. Not that these are deployed for effect; indeed, this piece evinces an almost continuous ‘through line’ from which emerges a discourse as inventive as it is diverting – with an incitement to disciplined virtuosity that the musicians, not least Céline Saout, seized on with assurance. The harpist took centre stage for Bariolage, taking its cue from Rilke in what is a scintillating exploration of those techniques.

Nor is humour at a premium in this music. Two Controversies and a Conversation finds the piano at first mediating precariously between ensemble and percussion (first marimba, then woodblocks), before more balanced and equable discourse is made possible.

Carter’s earliest musical mentor, Charles Ives, would have been impressed by this refracted recollection of a concept he himself pursued in his Second String Quartet and while he might have been less convinced by the abstraction of Carter’s writing for piano, there can be little doubting the effectiveness of the latter’s Two Thoughts about the Piano. Complementary pieces too – the preoccupied and silence-riven progress of Intermittences countered by the linear velocity of Caténaires; Pierre-Laurent Aimard tackling both these pieces with his customary poise and precision.

Back in the early 1980s, Triple Duo was one of Carter’s most effervescent and entertaining works – its stealthy ingenuity posited in far more gnomic ways by Double Trio with its often impulsive if ultimately resigned interplay between violin, trombone and percussion as heard against trumpet, cello and piano.

Gražinytė-Tyla’s direction was at its most perceptive here, though it was left for Aimard, Alexandra Wood and Ulrich Heinen to take the platform for what was Carter’s final work. Epigrams consists of 12 refractory miniatures for piano trio (designed by the composer so that their cohesion would be assured however many were completed) – their salient gestures constantly though unpredictably recurring such that their diversity is never achieved at the expense of their unity, however hard-won this may seem.

If there was anything predictable here, it was the conviction and technical finesse of tonight’s performance, rounding off a programme as compact and absorbing as the music itself. Those yet to do so should investigate BCMG’s disc of Carter’s ‘late music’ as a matter of urgency.

For more information about Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, visit the ensemble’s website

Further listening

You can listen to the BCMG’s disc of Carter that Richard refers to on Spotify below:

BBC Proms – BBC Singers & Ensemble Intercontemporain: Boulez, Elliott Carter & Bartók

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Baldur Brönnimann conducts the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the BBC Proms on Friday 2 September, in a Prom also featuring violinist Jeanne-Marie Conquer, IRCAM computer music artists Andrew Gerzo, Carlo Laurenzi and Jérémie Henrot, and the BBC Singers. (c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 65; Royal Albert Hall, Friday 2 September 2016

Bartók Three Village Scenes (1926); Boulez Anthèmes 2 (1997); Carter Penthode (1985); Boulez Cummings ist der Dichter (1970)

Listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Tonight’s late Prom suggested a certain nostalgic element in that the composers performed were at the forefront of these concerts from the late-1960s to the early 1990s, since when the evolution of contemporary music has increasingly become divorced from notions of progress.

Not least in the case of the Three Village Scenes that Bartók wrote in response to a hearing of Stravinsky’s Les noces, and that essentially freed his music from any vestige of late-romantic rhetoric. Not heard at the Proms for over three decades, these concise pieces alive with vitality and (in the second of them) pathos responded well to the poise and precision accorded by the Ensemble Intercontemporain (who gave this piece with Pierre Boulez in 1974 and ’79) – with the BBC Singers conveying the abrasiveness and humour of the vocal writing in like measure.

Although among his late works, Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 looks back via a brief solo predecessor to the Stravinsky memorial tribute a quarter-century earlier. Less encompassing in its musical scope than his other electro acoustic pieces, it brings to a head Boulez’s preoccupation with a cumulative s verse-and-refrain format unfolding as continuous variations in sound and space. Ably as the three IRCAM engineers facilitated this latter, it was the playing of Jeanne-Marie Conquer (below) – a world-class soloist if she chose to be – which took centre stage in every respect.

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A rather different side of Boulez’s composing was evident with Cummings ist der Dichter – a work which, for all that its title came about by accident, represents an oasis of conviction from an era beset by creative uncertainty. How much of this is due to harmonic enrichment brought about by the 1986 revision is arguable, though the manner in which the text emerges out of its syllabic and parenthetical austerity to assume unexpected textural richness and intricacy was inherent from the outset, and the present account left little doubt as to this music’s eloquence.

Between these works came Elliott Carter’s Penthode, not heard at these concerts since being premiered here 31 years ago and that could not then have been heard as merely an instalment in a creative odyssey still having over two decades to run. The five paths of its title taken by five ‘broken’ ensembles, the piece unfolds as a single-movement chamber symphony whose slow underlying pulse is increasingly overridden by music of a quizzical and often humorous demeanour; not least when directed with evident verve and assurance by Baldur Brönnimann.

An increasingly familiar figure in the UK, Brönnimann is in a line of conductors – stretching back to Boulez and beyond – as ensures this music retains its relevance for later generations, such that tonight’s Prom could never be mistaken for a nostalgic look back to a lost future.

Richard Whitehouse