MUSIC John Woolrich: Pianobooks I-VII Almeida Opera, London

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The Independent Culture
John Woolrich has written concertos and an opera, but his heart belongs with the miniature. The suite-like forms of his chamber pieces point this way, and his seven Pianobooks confirm it. In his larger scores, he uses spans of melody to hold the unfolding structure like the cables of a suspension bridge. The smaller pieces, by contrast, seem hardly melodic at all. They have a lyric essence yet withhold the lyrical act. They are miniatures without a trace of epigram.

Whether you've struggled with Beethoven's Fur Elise or bathed in the silvery light of Debussy's Clair de lune, this might seem an odd definition for a favourite genre. And yet Woolrich's pieces work on their own terms. They are wind chimes, brought to life by mysterious currents, and listeners find their own feelings echoed in the sounds. Like a Chopin prelude, a Woolrich piano piece is simply all theme; all middle, no beginning or end. His titles scarcely refer to music at all. "Castiglioni", "Distant", "Envoy" and "Gismo" are just four of them, chosen from 27; not messages from air-traffic control, but private announcements, each with a secret agenda.

For Almeida Opera (as this partly non-vocal festival is now misleadingly named) to feature six books on Wednesday night, with a seventh book receiving its world premiere as part of the sequence, was therefore an exciting gamble, though not in a gripping sense, for this was often music of meditation; sombre music, wherein thoughts seemed bound and left in a dark wood. Traditionally, after all, the piano piece has been for domestic consumption, its poetry a private act of communion between pianist and keyboard. Here, four players were employed - Catherine Edwards, Andrew Zolinsky, Thomas Ades and Martin Butler - on two pianos, dividing the labour.

Moreover, the Quay Brothers, with lighting from Giuseppe di Lorio, had designs upon the evening. In Shoreditch's Hoxton Hall they produced an installation to help along the music. The stuffed baby elk on stage, and the object at the back that appeared, as in some theatrical Rorschach test, to be a levitating walrus, were in harmony with the cast-iron columns, double gallery, and assorted ghosts of this one-time music hall. Though not much was said, it all lent a mood of quiet fantasy. Images of a birdcage and a hand holding a quill pen were projected above the players. The cycle closed with the revelation of an empty room and a wooden chair. The music at this point, distant and strange, made a sense of silence, as if you could almost hear the dust settling.

Elsewhere in this 60 minutes of unbroken pianism, the pieces were rough, beguiling, playful but, most of all, brooding. Woolrich, famous for finding new things to say with folk material, here seemed locked in the abstract. Any reference to dance or popular music seemed repressed (no trace of the Almeida's famous tangos!). Instead, as each piece blended into the next, their boundaries were dissolved in the general flow of feeling. As the titles, illegible anyway in the dark interior, passed from the mind, replaced by one's own thoughts, the focus grew clearer: this was a plotless hour of music, in effect, a vast and complex musical diary.