Repin/Gergiev/LSO, Barbican Hall, London
Julian Warburton and Friends, Sounds New, Canterbury
Aronowitz Ensemble, The Forge, London
Runaway concerto leaves audience and soloist panting behind
Sunday 16 May 2010
Pity the composer whose world premiere is sandwiched between two modern masterpieces. Written in memory of his mother for Vadim Repin, Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra, James MacMillan's Violin Concerto careers like a runaway train through timbres, domestic and exotic, in three breathless movements.
The contrast with Stravinsky's tart, sophisticated Symphony in C was an unhappy one. Vibraphone and marimba eddy greedily in MacMillan's score, sucking Repin's burly, glamorous sound into their dark, sea-green whorls of sound, then casting it out for a vertiginous reel, all strident double-stopping and ungrateful arpeggios. The ideas come thick and fast. Too thick and fast to be developed coherently. A piccolo plays a melody of penny-whistle naivety. Brass trill like a vengeful mariachi band. Male voices bark in German: "Ein, zwei, drei, vier! Meine Mutter tanz mit mir!" A horn sounds the "Dies Irae", crotales blur the pitch, whip and snare-drum snicker. As a portrait of the mother-son relationship at its most intense and pre-verbal, the work has a rough-hewn honesty. But extensive revision of the percussion parts is needed. If a player as strong as Repin cannot be heard above MacMillan's orchestral textures, and if an orchestra as sharp as the LSO cannot compensate for that imbalance, it is unlikely any other soloist and orchestra will.
The rest of the concert saw Gergiev and the LSO at their best: a sensual, supremely unhurried reading of Debussy's Prélude à l'après midi d'un faune in which Gareth Davies's flute shimmered into focus over limpid pools of colour from the harp and strings; a pristine Symphony in C in which the voices of Baba the Turk, Tom Rakewell and Anne Truelove could be heard; and an electrifying Symphony of Psalms, with forthright intonations from the female sections of the LSO Chorus, perfumed counterpoint from the woodwind and divisi cellos of dizzying beauty.
A similar fate to MacMillan's befell Basil Athanasiadis, whose Dance of the Seven Veils was premiered by percussionist Julian Warbuton and friends between Cage's Amores and Xenakis's Pléïades at the Sounds New festival in Canterbury. Reichian rhythm patterns and Clangers-esque sighs from the vibes prevailed in Athanasiadis's supine, Japanese-influenced score. Written more than 60 years earlier, the Cage sounded far fresher, evocative of age-mottled mirrors and the impassive eyes of Victorian china dolls in the opening Solo for prepared piano; rainfall and the sound of a shoe being lazily kicked off a foot in Trio for nine tom-toms and pod rattle; the absent-minded tap of a toothbrush against teeth in Trio for seven wood blocks, and the alluring softness of an old mattress in the concluding piano solo.
Scored for six percussionists, Xenakis's 1979 masterpiece Pléïades has retained its kaleidoscopic brilliance, the bubbling, fizzing, dazzling collisions of claviers, the rolling, epic waves of sound in Peaux, the shattering euphoria of Métaux and the glorious binding logic of Mélanges. Simply thrilling.
The Aronowitz Ensemble had a busy day last Sunday, performing at the Wigmore Hall in the morning and in an informal concert at The Forge, Camden, in the evening. In this super-intimate venue, barely bigger than a generous sitting room, the string players chose a pale, covered sound for Purcell's Fantasias – the second woven around the pedal note held by violist Tom Hankey – warming their tone in the most perfectly balanced chords and spontaneous musical dialogue for Vaughan Williams's Phantasy Quintet. You could tell they had played Dvorak earlier in the day, such was the sweetness and lack of artifice.
I did not warm to pianist Tom Poster's tea-dance transcriptions of Gershwin's "Love Walked Right In" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (too much happening in the middle register, not enough in the bass), but the performance of the Adagio from Elgar's Piano Quintet was stunning, most particularly from violinist Nadia Wijzenbeek. This was the first in a series of concerts that includes a collaboration with Mark Padmore, a performance of Verklärte Nacht, and further exploration of works written for viol consort and influenced by viols – a series likely to be the hottest of hot chamber music tickets.
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