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IXION at the Warehouse 19 October 2006

The Michael Finnissy 60th birthday celebration continued with a fine concert given by IXION at the Warehouse, which also celebrated the birthdays of composer Chris Newman and cellist Robin Michael on this date. Pianist Philip Howard was superb throughout.

The programme was put together by composer Andrew Toovey, founder of IXION (pictured) and consisted of music connected to Finnissy in some way. It got off to a great start with a piano trio by Gerald Barry entitled In The Asylum, in which the composer imagines the following scene: “In The Asylum the composer is writing three pieces: The Rung; The Potent Rug; Wigs of Flanders ” There is certainly a tangible feeling of insanity in this piece, but it is mostly a gentle, withdrawn madness, with some anarchic outbursts.

The players, Kirsten Le Strange on violin, Robin Michael on cello, and Philip Howard on piano, were excellent; balance was well-judged, and ensemble was good. My only gripe was concerning Robin Michael's facial expressions, which came across as insincere and were not really necessary to communicate the music to the audience. Philip Howard was supportive and non-intrusive at the piano, and Kirsten Le Strange dealt admirably in what appeared to be a difficult violin part.

There followed the World Premiere of Scotch Tape by Michael Finnissy, a short piano trio for clarinet, cello and piano, with Andrew Smith joining Michael and Howard. It began with an interesting and satisfying texture, a shrill clarinet joined by cello pizzicato and high piano stabs. Michael did well in projecting a cello part that often left him in a quiet register, having to compete with the clarinet. Mid-way through the piece, a catchy jazz-rhythm entered the fray, drawing a host of smiles from the audience. At six minutes long I was left wanting more, a good thing!

Philip Howard then gave a clear and energetic performance of Milton Babbitt's Post-Partitions, in which he brought many shades to the virtuosic writing. This was followed by the London Premiere of Morgan Hayes' revised Trio for violin, bass clarinet and piano. The opening was pointillistic, with short stabs from the three instruments, and exciting blended unison crescendos. There were some interesting moments, with high piano chords and violin pizzicati seemingly ‘chased' by low bass-clarinet splodges, as if the latter instrument was trying to swat a fly - the combination of piano staccato chords and pizzicati seemed to be the basic texture of the piece. Later this dialogue was reversed, with a low bass-clarinet line trying to escape from the ‘pinning-down' of the piano and pizzicato stabs. The second movement allowed Philip Howard to produce some ravishing piano sounds, achieved by fabulous voicing and pedalling.

The first half finished with twelve short piano pieces written for Finnissy's birthday celebrations by Julian Anderson, William Attwood, David Breeze, Daniel Giorgetti, Laurence Crane, Geof Hannan, Morgan Hayes, Robert Keeley, Matthew Shlomowitz, Howard Skempton, Luke Stoneham, and Andrew Toovey, in a large variety of styles (with a surprising amount of Nyman-esque textures), all well performed by Howard.

The second half began with Toovey's (nobody'll know) for cello and piano, which explores the various relationships possible between cello and piano, (as a reflection of relationships between two people.) There were many dramatic moments, but I lost track of the overall structure as it went on; perhaps this would become clearer on second hearing. The ending was very exciting, with both players involved in an angry outburst.

The last ensemble piece of the evening was Gerald Barry's, Low for clarinet and piano. The composer's typically terse programme note simply states: “It is sometimes high and sometimes low”. I found that most of the piece was in the middle! A very simple opening, with a Bartok Mikrokosmos- like pentatonic texture and lots of repeated notes. This eventually became more energetic, with grace notes on the clarinet, and an increase in speed. The process was clear to the listener as changes in register, speed and texture evolved slowly. Near the end we finally heard a very high section immediately followed by a very low, Messiaen-like line, with additive rhythms and the piano hands four octaves apart.

The evening ended with composers singing songs by Chris Newman, with Finnissy himself at the piano. Their lyrics were absolutely hilarious and well appreciated by the sell-out audience. My favourites were Airships on my tit, performed by Geoff Hannan and Touchez performed by Toovey.

Aleksander Szram