London Sinfonietta 50th Anniversary Concert

Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Simon Haram (saxophone), London Sinfonietta , London Sinfonietta Academy Alumni / David Atherton, George Benjamin, Vladimir Jurowski

Birtwistle The Message (2007)
Stravinsky Octet (1923)
Ligeti Chamber Concerto (1970)
Deborah Pritchard River Above (2018) (World premiere)
Samantha Fernando Formations (2018) (World premiere)
Abrahamsen Left, alone for piano (left hand) & orchestra (2015) (London premiere)
Various Encore! (14 Variations on a Hornpipe by Purcell) (2018) (World premiere)

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 24 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here (available until 22 February 2018)

With a bold slogan Unfinished Business – We’re 50, the London Sinfonietta illustrated at their birthday concert exactly why the ensemble remains such a vital cog in the musical life of the capital and the UK.

Their relentless drive for the new, the original, and the game-changing, is coupled with a level of musicianship that remains at the very highest in all they do. This concert reminded us of those things, while a couple of tactful presentations drew attention to the inspirations behind the music, as well as highlighting those who were sadly not able to experience the half-centenary birthday.

To the music – and a short fanfare to begin in the form of The Message, written for the Sinfonietta’s 40th birthday by one of the composers to help shape the ensemble, Sir Harrison Birtwistle (from 4:43 on the broadcast link above). It began proceedings with appropriate ceremony, brilliantly played and controlled by the spotlit trio of clarinettist Mark van der Wiel, trumpeter Alistair Mackie and percussionist David Hockings.

Stravinsky’s Octet followed (from 7:43-23:19), conducted by one of the ensemble’s founders, Sir David Atherton. This was a colourful account, enjoying the outdoorsy and often playful writing for the less-than-usual combination of flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone.

The short introduction ushered in the perky main theme of the first movement (from 9:12), but it was in the second movement (12:01) where the Sinfonietta really excelled, the flurries of notes brilliantly delivered by clarinets and bassoons. The third movement (12:10) enjoyed Stravinsky’s pointed interactions between the instruments, bassoons again dictating the rhythmic impetus.

The first half ended with Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, written in 1970 and continuing to dazzle with its innovations in tone and sonority (from 27:35-47:05). Atherton worked with the composer on the score, so this ‘first hand’ performance had real authority. It was a performance of exceptional detail, the atmospheric effects hushing the audience almost in to a stage of hypnosis in the quieter moments.

By complete contrast the harsher interventions had the power to make the listener jump, meaning a return to the state of hypnosis was needed for some nerves to be kept intact! The players were terrifically alive to the changes in mood and colour, and in those loud moments (e.g. 38:54) Clive Williamson’s piano added an edge of visceral power.

If the first half was a summation of the London Sinfonietta’s expertise with established 20th century repertoire, the second reaffirmed their commitment to the very new.

Deborah Pritchard’s commission River Above, a world premiere, gave us a marked change in sonority as we turned to the solo saxophone of Simon Haram. This was a brilliantly played piece, exploring the timbre of the instrument to good effect through long-breathed phrases (1:28:00-1:36:49 on the broadcast).

This was followed by a second world premiere, Samantha Fernando’s Formations (1:40:41-1:49:17) for an ensemble of 15 players. This was much more immediate in its impact, beginning with imposing block chords before moving to a section with sharp, barbed wire edges to the texture. Throughout there were fascinating and colourful sonorities and strong tonal associations, before the piece began to move forward with greater purpose towards the end, which if anything came too soon.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen has enjoyed a close association with the ensemble since the late 1960s, so the inclusion – and London premiere – of Left, alone, a Concerto for piano (left hand) and orchestra (1:58:30-2:19:00), conducted by George Benjamin, was wholly appropriate. The much larger orchestra and piano required a considerable break while the heroic front of house team expanded the, but the wait was worth it – for this was an apt choice.

Starting with a real show of strength, soloist Tamara Stefanovich had terrific energy, the piano outlining a bold rhythmic profile in the lower register but then moving higher, accompanied by the large ensemble. As Abrahamsen says in the interesting interview with Sara Mohr-Pietsch on the radio broadcast, the wiry tones of the large ensemble are essential to the overall sound, preferable to the fuller symphony orchestra approach. This was clear as the piece progressed, becoming less of a battle between left hand and orchestra; more an integration of the two different sound worlds, so that when twinned with the bassoons at the end the sound palette burbled like a hot spring.

Finally there was a collaborative commission, a collage of Variations on a Hornpipe by Henry Purcell (from 2:24:31-2:42:46 on the broadcast link), conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The variations were written by 14 composers with Sinfonietta connections, and were followed by an altered statement of the hornpipe itself written by 10 more. All contributions were woven together under the direction of John Woolrich, who composed the beginning and end.

The best advice here is to listen to the introduction on the radio, then to guess who might be the composer of each fragment as the piece proceeds! A stately, ceremonial air surrounded the piece at its start but gradually the variations moved it further from the source. Perhaps inevitably the fragmented approach led to a disjointed whole at times, with a short attention span – due to the number of composers involved rather than Woolrich’s sterling work in getting the music together.

It was however a suitable showcase for the Sinfonietta as an ensemble, proving beyond doubt once again that their virtuosity knows no bounds, and ended with a flourish – as though to say, “Here’s to another 50 years, at the very least”. And so say all of us!

A 50th anniversary tribute will follow on these pages soon.

Further listening

You can listen to an album of Hans Abrahamsen’s music made by the London Sinfonietta in 1997 on Spotify:

Wigmore Mondays – Adrian Brendel and Aleksandar Maksar


Adrian Brendel (cello), Aleksandar Maksar (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 7 December 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 6 January 2016


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of some of the music in this concert. The Birtwistle is not on Spotify, and Adrian Brendel has not yet recorded either of the Debussy or Chopin Cello Sonatas, so alternative versions have been chosen:

What’s the music?

Debussy: Cello Sonata in D minor (1915) (11 minutes)

Birtwistle: Variations for cello and piano (2007) (6 minutes)

Chopin: Cello Sonata in G minor (1846) (31 minutes)

Every piece of music that Chopin published features the piano in some way. Most of his output is for piano solo but there are a couple of exceptions – two piano concertos and some works for piano and orchestra, the Polish Songs, the Piano Trio and this, Chopin’s only Cello Sonata.

It is a substantial piece, written late on in its composer’s career, and has a curious structure of four movements where the first is as long as the other three put together. It is a substantial piece of work, deeply felt in the slower music especially, but is also restless, the cello and piano playing closely together in melodies of unusual rhythm and contour. Chopin achieves the difficult task of honing his instincts for the piano to play as a solo instrument, balancing the two forces extremely well.

Debussy’s Cello Sonata is much shorter, a third of the length of the Chopin, but is equally concentrated in feeling. The work was to be the first in a series of six sonatas for different instrumental combinations from the composer, but sadly ill health determined he would not be able to get any further than three (the others are for violin and piano, and flute, viola and harp). The Cello Sonata is a sultry piece, particularly in the second movement Sérénade, which features plucking on the cello.

Bisecting these is one of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s several pieces for cello and piano. The Variations are very closely linked to the Brendel family, and although they were commissioned by Adrian they take as their theme a piece written by Birtwistle for father Alfred. The theme is taken from another piece for the same combination, the Lied, and Birtwistle complemented that with this piece and several more to make a continuous sequence for cello, baritone and piano lasting just over half an hour.

Performance verdict

Adrian Brendel and Aleksandar Madzar gave highly accomplished performances of these three works, the result an extremely satisfying concert of contrasting musical language. The Debussy is a perennial favourite but sounded very fresh here, Brendel enjoying the almost complete freedom of the improvised second movement.

The Birtwistle, a gritty, concentrated piece, was very well done also, with characterisation of each of the short variations and some really vivid shades of colour from Brendel in particular.

The Chopin exploited the cellist’s singing tone beautifully, especially in the soaring second theme of the second movement. The duo stressed the uncertainty of much of this piece, and in particular the sizeable first movement, which here seemed to have just as many intriguing questions as it had answers. Brendel took everything in his stride technically, and the rapport and ensemble between the two performers – Madzar employing plenty of light and shade with the piano – was a real asset throughout.

What should I listen out for?


2:04 – the first movement, a Prologue, begins with an opening statement from the piano, before the cello comes in expansively. The mood evokes to me a late summer evening. Debussy impresses with his economical use of form here, packing a lot of musical incident into a short movement before it finishing thoughtfully.

6:29 – the Sérénade is a nocturnal movement, and sounds like an improvisation, the plucked cello leading the piano in a stuttering series of musical gestures, showing off a more obvious Spanish influence. Gradually Debussy brings both instruments into line, and the cello uses the bow a lot more, building the tension and moving straight into…

9:50… the Finale, which starts with urgent piano and soaring cello before a vivacious theme makes itself known from the cello (10:08). This becomes the main focus of the movement, though the sultry mood of the Sérénade is not entirely forgotten.


15:27 – the piece begins with a mysterious sound world on show, the cello playing two notes at once and the piano sounding very uncertain. The variations unfold in wildly differing moods, and without following the score it is relatively difficult to say where one ends and the next begins. After a tense beginning the piano stabs out two penetrating notes and then the music becomes faster – though the performers seem much more at odds. The end, when it comes, is slight.


23:28 – the very substantial first movement (16 minutes) starts on the piano, with a solemn introduction. It doesn’t take long for Chopin to show off the pianist’s technique, but he is careful not to write a part that impinges on the cello once it appears with the theme. After a slow start the pace picks up a little, the mood intensifying – until Chopin works around to a repeat of the whole first section (from 28:42)

39:54 – a short scherzo that flits about without seeming to settle. The instruments are very closely linked in their musical discussion, both sharing the distinctive rhythm that Chopin gives to the main theme. The second theme () has a soaring quality very unusual to Chopin (in that he wrote so many melodies for the piano) and it has a penetrating beauty in this concert.

45:10 – a soft but warm-hearted slow movement, with a songful melody first aired on the cello but then repeated on piano. This is a surprisingly short movement, profound but giving the sonata a slightly lopsided form.

48:40 – the finale takes us back to the sonata’s ‘home’ key of G minor and finds an impressive urgency, with cello and piano working very closely together. Chopin employs a number of extremely catchy hooks but the form is relatively compressed…and soon the music moves into the major key and a thoroughly affirmative finish at 54:30.

Further listening

The Spotify playlist containing the music for this concert has been enhanced to include Chopin’s other large-scale chamber work, the Piano Trio. After this you can enjoy some music for cello and piano by a composer best known for his piano music, Franz Liszt – and played by the great Hungarian cellist Miklós Perényi: