live review Sinfonia 21/ Martyn Brabbins St John's Smith Square, London
Friday 22 March 1996
So what defines a performing group when mixing-and-matching's the name of the game? Well, the conductor (or lack of one) and the attitude towards programming, perhaps. Sinfonia 21, once our old friends the Docklands Sinfonietta, has a feisty conductor in Martyn Brabbins and a feisty attitude to programme-planning. On the evidence of Wednesday's concert at St John's, the relentless march of "themed" programming seems light-years away.
This was the third of a series in which premieres have nestled alongside the largely unfamiliar. Faure, Ligeti and Beethoven do not really spring to mind as natural bedfellows and a questionnaire - the current bane of arts events - was there to ask just what we thought: how did we like the repertoire, the dress, the venue, the start time, Classic FM, Radio 3, the Independent . . ? All this, of course, because of the tedious search for cash. No wonder London's freelancers are so good; there's simply not enough money to spend on rehearsal time - which begins to explain something about Wednesday's enigmatic programming.
A delightfully poised but airy performance of Faure's neo-classical Masques et Bergamasques showed how Brabbins could lift a potentially coy piece to realms of utter charm. But, with as little rehearsal as I suspect had been available, tackling Ligeti's Piano Concerto was stunningly ambitious. This is a work that grew from a three-movement structure in 1986 to a five-movement colossus in 1988. Its demands on the pianist are formidable, but Rolf Hind has the kind of technique that gobbles up difficulties, the relentless passage-work tossed off with a breathtaking ease.
Clarity of texture, precision of attack, emphasis of colour are key to this work - a Bartok concerto translated - but a certain hesitancy from the orchestra, little helped by the St John's acoustic, seemed to undermine the overall impact. Nothing that a further performance in a different venue couldn't fix, however.
Ligeti's Etudes are for solo piano: their inclusion here thus spared precious orchestral rehearsal time. Within a group of four, Hind brought the British premiere of Ligeti's most recent addition - No 15 - a bizarre procession of rhythmless minims suddenly interrupted by helter-skeltering quavers of Nancarrow-ish dimensions, all dispatched in scarcely more than a minute. Hind's performance was of glittering brilliance, particularly in No 13, "L'Escalier du Diable" - a case of Ligeti meets Liszt.
Equally, when it came to Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, Brabbins's handling - taking brisk tempi (to the point of restlessness in the Adagio) but revealing impressive control as the finale hurtled to its close - signalled that Ligeti's stock accentuated cross-rhythms have a more than distinguished past.
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