Crisp playing from the Sinfonietta

Music: BOURNEMOUTH SINFONIETTA; Barbican, London
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The Independent Culture
The Bournemouth Sinfonietta's concert on Saturday evening was embedded in two days of buzzing workshops and informal foyer performances related to the orchestra's education and community projects. How the 79 year-old Frenchman, Henri Dutilleux, described as their Composer Emeritus, fits into all this isn't very clear, but the concert included a fairly recent piece by him, as well as one by their Associate Composer, David Sawer, who gave an introductory talk.

Dutilleux is rather an elusive figure, a sort of latter-day impressionist, whose scented, diaphanous music seems intended to please without provoking stronger responses. If you like it, you might say it has quiet integrity, or avoids sensationalism and fashion. Dutilleux describes Mystere l'Instant, written for the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher in 1989, as a series of snapshots triggered by a magical moment one summer evening, when he heard an extraordinarily vaned medley of birdsong. The piece is scored for string orchestra and incorporates prominent solos for the Hungarian cymbalom as well as fastidious parts for two percussionists. It deliberately avoids imitating birdsong. Oddly enough, the programme note disclaimed organic growth, though the music seemed to have it. But the composer's characteristic subtitles for the 10 sections - a way of describing the sorts of musical discourse, like "calls", "echoes", "litanies" and so on - seemed justified only to a very pale and discreet extent. The final Embrasement, or Conflagration, turned out to be little more than a flurry. The least you could say was that it was tasteful.

Composers' programme notes are hostages to fortune, and many composers would do best to keep quiet. But David Sawer's explanations seemed helpful. The Memory of Water, he said, proceeds like a sequence of memories initiated at the opening and remembered in different ways through the course of the piece. Because of the way strings blend, he imagined the music as a moving piece of water, and if it did not sound exactly aqueous, perhaps that was a cliche well forgotten. But it was certainly euphonious as well as idiomatic - at one point, Sawer stole Elgar's idea of violinists thrumming their instruments like guitars. The musical images were actually too strong to fall victim to amnesia, and the connections among them were almost constantly stimulating. So was the clever handling of relations between two solo violinists, Simon Lewis and Andrew Court, as well as between them and the orchestra. Nicolae Moldoveanu seemed to conduct this first London performance well and the audience clapped warmly.

The rest of the programme was conducted by Tamas Vasary, who also took the solo part in Mozart's Piano Concerto No 21 in C major, K467. Doubling roles seemed to encourage him to boost his volume at the keyboard, and the brisk tempo he adopted for the first movement sometimes felt almost as if it were running ahead of itself. Still, every corner was negotiated neatly, and if the first movement cadenza had some reckless modulations and too many ideas for its context, the cadenza in the finale was disarmingly brief. The Sinfonietta played crisply and also delivered an alert performance of the Jupiter Symphony.

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