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Hans Werner Henze Kammerkonzert 05 (1947/2005) UK premiere of chamber version
Karlheinz Stockhausen Five Stars Signs (1974/2004) UK premiere
Mauricio Kagel Kammersymphonie (1973/1996) UK premiere

London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 6 December 2006

Can't you write something new?

An indelible memory from Huddersfield Festival 1998 was of Richard Steinitz challenging featured composer Luis de Pablo, in connection with his reworking of Senderos del aire (1987) for large orchestra as Segundo Lectura (1992) for chamber ensemble, "can't you write something new?".

By now, such rewritings, only partly engaged upon to secure further performances after premieres, have become commonplace, to such extent that London Sinfonietta devoted a whole concert to such treatments.

I had heard the Henze and Stockhausen items in their original guises, but long forgotten them, and found myself not greatly engaged on this re-acquaintance with them, even after Oliver Knussen (who had not taken to the Stockhausen at first run-through, nor had his players) had given them twice; no revelation.

He'd have done much better to have spent the time giving us an introduction to one or two of them, illustrated by examples played by the ensemble and contrasted with a recording of the original?

It was Mauricio Kagel (pictured) who prompted our interest to review this concert, mainly because he is a composer and film maker with a wry sense of humour and a liking for paradoxes.

In his 1996 revision of Kammersymphonie (1973) Kagel takes on the "insane" prohibition of pitch-doubling promulgated by the serialists; making it deliberately a "two tone opus from beginning to end", with doublings to create "a polyphony of tonal colours".

The sounds were rich and alluring (the prohibitions of the serialists have long been consigned to history) but humour was not in prominent evidence to us and, sad to confess, the music on its own came to have an increasingly desultory feel as it unfolded in two lengthy movements for a leisurely 36 mins.

It could be rescued, I thought, by becoming the musical component of an abstract modern dance presentation; many concert rarities have found large audiences that way (e.g. Scelsi's Okanagon was given more than 50 times in Ballet Rambert's 1989 to 1991 programmes, during which it must have reached more pairs of ears than all the UK concert performances of music by Giacinto Scelsi put together!).

Maybe our reservations about these revisions for smaller forces were coloured by reaction to the major excitement of the Lachenmann festival, climaxed by London Sinfonietta last week? Once again, this crack team of specialists played immaculately, this time under Oliver Knussen's thoroughly rehearsed and always precise control, embracing confidently the several idioms of these very different composers. London Sinfonietta always leaves you with plenty to think about!

Peter Grahame Woolf