Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Radius at Wigmore Hall

Boulez: Domaines

Paul Newland: Monotonous Forest, wp

Cage: Telephones and Birds (Not Birds But Messiaen)

Messiaen: L’Alouette Lulu

Cage: Radio Music

Tim Benjamin: A Dream of England, wp


Rosie Banks – cello

Owen Gunnell – percussion

John Reid – piano

Adam Walker – flute

Sarah Watts – clarinet

Raymond Blankenhorn – narrator

Wigmore Hall, 18 June 2009

It has become a feature of Radius concerts to programme works of the experimental, mostly American, avant garde alongside their more obliging European counterparts. This practice reached a sort of zenith so far in the evening’s enticing performance of Cage’s Telephones and Birds, which, instead of taped birdsong, used Messiaen’s piano transcriptions, along with the requisite recordings of telephone calls (all made in this case to the Monterey Bay Area ‘Birdbox’ hotline).


As a broad strategy it has its pros and cons. In particular, I have reservations about how the coherence and ‘throughline’ of concert (rather than an assortment of recently rehearsed works) is affected. Another effect – more ambiguous and thus potentially more interesting – is the relative influence of one tradition upon another. In general – and in this performance of Telephones and Birds in particular – I’ve found that the glossier European masters tend to smooth out any experimentalist abrasions. This was probably the most flowing Cage I’ve heard, the recorded phone calls babbling beneath Messiaen’s birdsong like a Schubert lieder accompaniment. Funnily, Messiaen’s birdsongs pieces are probably the most Cageian – incidentally structured, non-discursive – of his output. A second-half performance of Radio Music – the ultimate in musical discontinuity – felt similarly muted.


Perhaps this burnishing wasn’t the effect of different musical models smoothing one another. Perhaps it has something to do with the refined ambience and sonority of the Wigmore Hall; perhaps it is something to do with the way Radius play. But it worked beautifully in Paul Newland’s new work, Monotonous Forest. Scored for piano, cello and percussion (vibes and horse bells), it was divided into four sections, each divided by a relatively loud piano chord. Almost everything else was quiet and played in single, overlapping tones, a slow, unsynchronised (but carefully arranged) arpeggiation of a musical space. The first section was the purest in tone; in subsequent sections ‘dirt’ was introduced through changes in percussion, then cello timbres, and finally the introduction of greater dynamic range and a more pointillist texture. The delicate lifting effect thus produced as the three lines de-connected was quite magical, like tissue papers rising over a flame.


The other new work was more overtly substantial – Tim Benjamin’s A Dream of England, a sort of semi-staged one-handed mini-opera for actor (playing Charles Darwin) and small ensemble. The text is extracted entirely from Darwin’s journals and letters written during the five-year voyage of The Beagle. Rather than biology, however, a great deal of it concerns Darwin’s first experiences of slavery (the 1833 Abolition Act became law in Great Britain midway through Darwin’s voyage). Benjamin went to some length in his note to describe Darwin’s complex and contradictory thoughts at this time, yet his music chose not to emphasize or enact this complexity, preferring instead to dramatize the narrative spaces between each spoken extract, providing comment through the shaping of a narrative arc – the development of Darwin’s thought – rather than attempting to model its problematic qualities. As a piece of theatre it was quite successful; as a musical work (imagining it for a moment without the texts) it was a little lightweight for me. Raymond Blankenhorn, as Darwin, carried his part well, although on occasion his diction (like Cage’s rough edges) was lost to that velvety acoustic.


The concert opened with a European classic – Boulez’s Domaines, in its solo clarinet version, and played with great consideration for overall form by Sarah Watts.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson