Gavin Bryars Premiere: St John's Smith Square

Classical Music
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The Independent Culture
"I've never been interested in having players show off because that seems to me not a musical thing. One of the great things that music has is that it's a social activity, it involves collective work, and if you have a situation where one person is the star and everyone else is subservient, then somehow you lose something." Puzzling words, perhaps, from a composer who's just written a new concerto, but when was Gavin Bryars not puzzling? Since the start of his composing career in the late 1960s, he has stood as the outsider retaining his roots as philosopher. Of course, he's been in good company: Satie, Cage, Morton Feldman and Cornelius Cardew, powerful influences on Bryars, have been fellow travellers. Who can forget the notorious Portsmouth Sinfonia, that proudly amateur band, in which wrong notes were actively acceptable and the experience so much more important than the "correctness" of the performance? Or the endless repetitive trance of Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Sinking of the Titanic, in which Bryars challenged seriously (or not?) the patience of performers, listeners and, above all, "the establishment", quixotically ducking and diving in a sea of irony?

So where is he today? Has the irony washed off? Does today's "establishment" really offer a more accepting environment for a composer who says, "The sound I dislike most is the development noise in Brahms's symphonies"? The answer is, of course, a resounding yes. With a pop-style launch last week for the CD of his new cello concerto, Farewell to Philosophy (commissioned, unusually, by a record company, Philips, for its contemporary music label, Point Music), and a new opera around the corner (commissioned jointly by ENO and the BBC), Bryars has in every sense arrived.

But last Thursday's St John's concert, in which the cello concerto had its live premiere, did not - with the exception of the soloist, Julian Lloyd Webber - exactly reflect the CD. In place of the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by James Judd, the New London Orchestra under Ronald Corp here did the honours - but, alas, in no way so effectively. As with so much of Bryars' recent music, the mood is plangent, the tempo slow. In a single movement lasting 35 minutes, Lloyd Webber is the perfect soloist, with a soulful, melancholy sound that touchingly responds to Bryars' somnolent mood. In no work is Bryars more sure of instrumental colour - the opening low rumbling for tam-tam, harp and cor anglais from which the cello emerges is stunning. But the apparently undemanding accompanimental figures over which the cello soars - this is a serene, lyrical work without virtuoso demands - are deceptive. If the shading of phrasing and dynamic is missing or the instrumental blend in Bryars' rich harmonies less than perfect, the impact is severely reduced, regrettably the case in Thursday's performance. But Bryars has written a work of great beauty that will without doubt become a chartbuster.

Annette Morreau