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Beat Furrer & Naomi Pinnock

Beat Furrer: Presto for flute & piano; Xenos (UK premiere)
Naomi Pinnock: Words for baritone & ensemble (World premiere)
Furrer: Nuun for 2 pianos & ensemble (UK premiere)

Omar Ebrahim baritone
Rolf Hind & Zubin Kanga solo pianos 1 & 2
John Constable piano
Michael Cox flute
Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble/London Sinfonietta/Beat Furrer

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 18 January 2011

This was a disconcerting and disappointing portrait concert as conceived for a distinguished Swiss-born composer/conductor; long Austrian-resident & founder in 1985 of the prestigious Klangforum Wien, Vienna's full-time soloist ensemble for contemporary music.

The BBC invested heavily in the occasion (some 25 microphones on stage for a similar number of performers !) but the audience was small and the introductory interviews with the composers on stage with John Fallas inept; Furrer was not fluent in English. Better by far would have been an introduction with illustrative extracts from the music - there was to be little more than an hour of it - to focus attention on some of the bizarreries to come, as Boulez has often done helpfully in concert and on DVD.

The flute/piano duo which will have been a first introduction to Furrer had little for the piano to do; a version for flute alone might have been more engaging. Xenos had us covering our ears from the assault of screeching piccolos and brass which put our hearing at risk.

Pinnock (who'd studied with modernists Birtwistle, Rihm, Fernyhough & Furrer amongst others) provided an oasis of relative calm and some beauty in her own Words to these of her own; "why solve a night without why without silence without why nothing why again nothing why", declaimed explosively by Omar Ibrahim in bursts of activity.

The largest work, for two pianos and large ensemble, had the pianos angled to make Hind & Kanga scarcely visible from our press seats and Kanga's playing often inaudible within the clotted complexities of the orchestral writing which tended to negate intriguing elements within the teeming activity; better would have been to have taken the lids of the Steinways right off.

Try it all again on BBC R3 (Hear & Now, 12 March) or, better, explore Furrer on Facebook, where there is a lot of his music assembled to listen for free !

We have previously found ourselves engrossed by Furrer's Orpheus opera Begehren and by a disc with a piano concerto and some chamber music: "something well outside the British contemporary music scene, approachable taken on its own terms and enjoyably invigorating" [Kairos 12842].

Peter Grahame Woolf

Read also a young composer's take on this concert

and in Musical Criticism "a giant of contemporary European composition"