"Cutting Edges" of contemporary music
Philip Howard The Warehouse 13 November 2003
Birtwistle & Eötvös London Sinfonietta at QEH 2 December
Philip Howard's piano recital was of particular interest because we had reported in depth the International Gaudeamus Interpreters’ Competition in Rotterdam 2001.
Philip Howard won First Prize in the 2003 competition, the first British winner of this prestigious competition since 1968, and this was his major concert appearance in London this Autumn.
Our problem was the repertoire, which made for a bleak evening for us, although the small audience was enthusiastic. Open minded as we persist in remaining, after too many decades to count of concert-going, there are some types of music which I find it harder to relate to.
The whirlwind of notes in Xenakis's Evryali (for which there had been a long wait!) was exciting to hear again and left no doubt of Howard's virtuosity, though one had to take on trust that most of those notes were the right ones.
Howard, who also composes, is a cool, undemonstrative pianist and a great deal of the other music he chose was mainly quiet, with occasional fortissimo outbursts. There was less in between, and little opportunity to demonstrate his prowess in more expressive, accessible music, so only time will tell whether he is an all-round musician or likely to remain, of choice, a specialist who will do the rounds of the contemporary music festivals circuit. It was not easy to relate to some of the gnomic, ostensibly programmatic titles.
Rather than pursue our personal and unhelpful reactions I had better leave it and refer readers to Philip Howard's debut CD of the same repertoire, Decoding Skin, Divine Art CD 25021.
" [Theseus Game] - - the discourse is now carried out with even greater subtlety and poise than hitherto Those new to Birtwistle may well have found themselves enthralled; those familiar with some of his earlier triumphs are likely to have found the work a pleasurable, even comfortable listen." (Richard Whitehouse, Classical Source)
My problem with Birtwistle's newest major work is one that has not troubled other commentators - it has been hailed as a masterpiece in Huddersfield and this London premiere. It took me back to decades ago when I used to find Schönberg's First Chamber Symphony intolerably dense and exhausting to hear. One eventually learned that the trouble with Schönberg was often in the performances themselves; the Chamber Symphony became a London Sinfonietta showpiece, and now everyone can enjoy it.
In much the same way I had been alienated by the plethora of notes and simultaneous hectic goings on in Wolfgang Rihm's Jagden und Formen at Luxembourg, finding it exhausting and repellent.
I found Harrison Birtwistle's Theseus Game for double orchestra a decidedly uncomfortable listen. There was so much going on all the time that it was not even possible to hear the fluctuating simultaneous tempi signalled by the two conductors (an idea developed by Carter), let alone to credit Birtwistle's contention, in an absorbing pre-concert discussion, that - in contrast with the 'intuitive' Tragoedia - the notes of Theseus Game were determined 'to the last grain of sand'! The succession of soloists coming to the front of the stage took the eye, but their 'continuous melody' was often drowned behind them; no doubt it will provide a comforting focus on the broadcast and on the CD which is certain to follow.
For a more successful and readily intelligible work for double orchestra, try Simon Bainbridge's Fantasia for Double Orchestra of 1983 (Continuum 1993) - not easy to come by; perhaps NMC might explore re-issuing it?
One has to take so much on trust in a great deal of contemporary music - I find myself swept away with pleasure and satisfaction often (e.g. Guerrero's orchestral music) without quite knowing why - but finally I prefer to be convinced that composers can 'justify' what they have put down on paper for musicians to play. Whilst this is by no means a plea for the easy 'accessibility' of minimalism and 'holy simplicity', a piece like Theseus Game sends us back to the relative clarity of chamber music, with sufficient complexity, or to the (equally innovative) productions of our particular favourite century, the 17th !
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- - Birtwistle's musical story comprises two distinct orchestral voices, interweaving but remaining separate, each with its own conductor, while a thread of melody is played throughout by constantly changing soloists. So the poor old London Sinfonietta had to follow two conductors (Martyn Brabbins and Pierre-André Valade), each beating out separate time signatures. And, worse, the musicians had to keep switching loyalties between conductors. Sound complicated? It did on the night, and it appeared unperformable as well. But it was a thrilling musical and choreographical game. [The Times]
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