MUSIC / Always good for a quote: Nicholas Williams on the many voices of Berio and T S Eliot

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The Independent Culture
Don't quote me on it, but any write-up of a week that included Berio's multi-referential Sinfonia and Eliot's The Waste Land was likely to begin with an allusion.

Side by side, music's most notorious anthology of orchestral excerpts and English Lit's most spectacular revision sheet make an odd couple. Even so, they had something in common. The point of last Wednesday's London Philharmonic concert was to spot the quotes from other works that were programmed with Sinfonia to show their influence. Overheard in the Festival Hall, one woman boasted two points for picking out Rosenkavalier and La Valse - although with a better pair of ears she might have trebled her score.

Likewise the Eliot: those who laughed loudest at the Donmar Warehouse on Monday to show they know the poem were probably missing the best jokes. But in this extraordinary medley of high poetry and Raymond Chandler, who could truly be sure they'd grasped every nuance?

For that, thank librettist Andy Rashleigh and his version of Martin Rowson's stunning cartoon original; also the composer Stephen McNeff, who directed the hard-working band. He is not the first to have tackled The Waste Land musically. It was only one of the many subjects, including the life of Freud, that Anthony Burgess planned to make into opera.

Even so, McNeff's energetic, quick-witted score was a triumph of its own, never shackling the drama in moments of self-indulgent repose. With ease, music shifted stage moods from the 'unreal city' to the Limehouse pub. It also bridged the awkward moments dividing speech and song, as tension flowed between the acted role of Matthew Aldridge's 'Chris Marlowe' and the numerous impersonations taken by a gifted cast of young singers.

As for Sinfonia, this was a highly enjoyable account with the New Swingle Singers conducted by David Shallon, who also gave a gripping version of Debussy's La Mer. The fact remains, however, that it's easier to praise Berio for his flair, his ear, and his playful aesthetic than to pin him down.

Perhaps the nearest that the South Bank concerts came to this was a QEH event devoted to all 12 Sequenzas - although this also turned out to be less than a quote- free zone. Each of the solos was prefaced with lines from a new poem by the composer's longtime colleague Edoardo Sanguinetti. Even so, the emphasis remained on the purely musical values of these sinuously unfolding lines, helped by timing that barely allowed for applause before the next piece began.

The effect was of a single work broken up into instrumental sections. Eliot Fisk's ravishing guitar sequenza balanced the clowning of Michele Lomuto's sequenza for trombone. Gabriele Cassone's fine trumpet playing, backed by piano resonance, made a grand climax to the series. To conclude, Paul Roberts's Consequences brought the Park Lane Group performers back to the platform to rummage in true Berio fashion through a wardrobe of motives and timbres heard earlier that evening, dressing them up into riffs and refrains.

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