The British composer Anthony Gilbert is 70 this year.
The British composer Anthony Gilbert is 70 this year. Unlike his better-known newly septuagenarian colleagues, such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, he will not be the subject of extensive festival junkets. Part of a modernist generation now widely derided as passé, and with a lower profile than Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle, he is in danger of going down in history more for his teaching at the Royal Northern College of Music and elsewhere than for his own compositions.
So it's all the more laudable that the Endymion Ensemble should mount this two-part birthday event. This preceded an all-Gilbert programme with 12 short tribute pieces by colleagues and pupils, including eight miniatures for solo clarinet (Mark van de Wiel) from Simon Holt, rivalling his teacher for their rapt focus, and an imaginatively unravelling series of clarinet-led sequences for five players from Birtwistle.
And this event comes at an apparently propitious time for Gilbert, too. On the evidence of Rose luisante, heard in a recital earlier this year, Gilbert might be hitting a new, Indian-summer stride. Tinos, the new piece in the present concert, and the only one written since 1992, continued that impression, though this setting of Spanish symbolist poetry for soprano, clarinet and vibraphone, exquisitely scored as it was, proved too brief to make more than a fleeting impact. I look forward to hearing the promised cycle of which it is part.
The Endymion's carefully chosen, excellently executed programme, including six other works, delved back to a very Schoenbergian Elegy for piano of 1961. It was tempting to conclude that Gilbert is at his finest when assembling short sequences of spare, predominantly quiet music. And perhaps best of all in vocal works that respond to poetry with which he identifies, as in Long White Moonlight for soprano (Marie Vassiliou) and double bass (Corrado Canonici), inspired by seeing the moon in his beloved India and the Far East.
But then along came the String Quartet No 3, energised by its basis in Machaut's double hocket to produce music of lively invention. And to conclude, Igorochki for solo recorder and eight instruments, which draws from its soloist (Julien Feltrin) a remarkable range of sounds and techniques, and evoke everything from the shakuhachi to Stravinsky while retaining an identifiable musical personality. Anyone who can do that is a real composer.
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