CLASSICAL / London Sinfonietta / Stenz Robert Maycock reels before the reality of 'Life without Christmas', Georgian style

For victims of consumer fatigue at the year's retailing climax, the prospect of Life without Christmas may excite an Advent-like sense of anticipation. Those who know Giya Kancheli's music, however, will realise that the title holds not a snowflake of irony. During two hours at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Sunday, the total duration of fast action amounted to about 15 seconds - cruel, painful seconds, every one.

Life is a cycle of four pieces, each named as a prayer for a different time of day, from morning to night. A boy's voice intones texts from time to time but, apart from the more extensively sung third piece, all four works are mostly laid out for strings with various wind and percussion. They date from the early Nineties, just before Kancheli - who was well- established in his native Georgia during the Soviet era - left the mess of post-independence life for the West.

Over the last decade, Kancheli has acquired a cult following, as Henryk Gorecki had before the popular success of his Third Symphony. In both cases, it rests on lengthy scores with an overwhelming atmosphere of contemplative gloom. There the resemblance ends. Kancheli, unlike Gorecki - or, for that matter, John Tavener and Arvo Part - is not a lapsed modernist whose yearning for the past forced a way through. He has always headed in this direction, having grown against a background of the early 20th-century Russians, Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

The music, for all its consonant, rooted nature and the uncovered directness of its emotion, is quite contemporary in feeling. Two immediate qualities stand out. The prevailing slow, spare writing is unsettled: one thing gives way to another, rather than resolving itself before it moves on. Then, against this restless but ultimately static background, the sudden short eruptions of noise and fury are right out of proportion. They, too, do not resolve. Sometimes they fizzle out, like a cry of despair that loses heart because nobody is listening. Sometimes they stop as abruptly as they started.

Two pieces, "Evening Prayers" and "Night Prayers", were here receiving their first UK performances. Of these, the first, with a chorus of altos singing throughout, is the most melodic and continuous of the whole cycle, and the most straightforwardly thematic as it builds to a climax of lyrical lamentation. "Night Prayers", expanded from a Kronos Quartet commission, is the most quietly intense for nearly all its duration, until it explodes in the longest and most harrowing of plaints. John Harle, the solo saxophonist, powered into the same dynamic extremes he had reached in Birtwistle's Panic at the Last Night of the Proms - an aesthetically opposite side of the same expressive coin.

Even so, "Daytime Prayers" delivered the year's single most frightening musical moment as the clarinettist, Michael Collins, had his screaming high entry reinforced by piccolo and cymbals. This is music whose stark immediacy requires the full, meditative lengths that follow, once its impact is accepted. The London Sinfonietta players, conducted by Markus Stenz, took it stiffly to start, but warmed to the arrival of the London Sinfonietta Voices in "Evening Prayers". Matthew Brown, a small boy with big shoes, undermined the magic of his on-stage arrival with a noisy plod to the front, and then sang with chilling precision.

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