Mark-Anthony Turnage-watchers had two chances to catch recent scores last weekend, before the English National Opera's revival of The Silver Tassie from 26 June. The London Sinfonietta's British premiere, on Friday, of Dark Crossing (first heard last November in Basel) was followed on Sunday by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's first British performances of Bass Inventions (premiered last May in Amsterdam).
They are the first purely instrumental works that Turnage has composed since completing The Silver Tassie. Both are, unsurprisingly, not only steeped in this composer's jazz-inflected yet now readily identifiable harmonic language, but also shot through with the vein of pungent lyricism that is an equally striking component of the Turnage style.
Indeed, the last "étude" in the 20-minute slow-fast-slow sequence that makes up Dark Crossing began life as part of a song cycle; little is otherwise revealed about the work's title. But it was the opening pair of études that made the strongest initial impression. The first one glories in its 11 wind and nine string lines, including contrabass clarinet and contrabassoon, and with Turnage's favourite soprano saxophone and flugelhorn prominent. The second étude's teeming counterpoint and sharply etched octave and other doublings are dazzling. The final étude seemed a little bland by comparison. The London Sinfonietta will never swing, though in many other respects the performance under Oliver Knussen was spot-on.
The BCMG under Peter Rundel adds a deeper understanding of jazz rhythms to razor-sharp ensemble, and everything it played on Sunday (a concert first heard in Birmingham the previous night) benefited enormously from the group's skills and commitment. Of course, it also gave itself the edge by having Dave Holland as soloist in Bass Inventions. Holland brought a lifetime of skills honed with the jazz greats to a compelling embrace of the bass; such is Turnage's absorption of his idiom, too, that I suspect those not following a score will have supposed that the soloist is allowed a greater degree of improvisation than is actually the case. Especially in the finely structured and moving large-scale final movement of this 40-minute work, the composer is to be congratulated on providing such a worthy successor to Blood on the Floor. The common ground between Turnage's "jazz-fusion" works and his other output will surely now gain a fresh urgency in determining his future direction.
Both programmes were full of other, sometimes good, things. The Sinfonietta, with the soprano Lucy Shelton, enterprisingly included the 37-year-old Dutch composer Robert Zuidam's settings of the endearingly appalling Scottish poet William McGonagall; the British premiere of his almost-hour-long McGonagall-Lieder will doubtless be written off by some as merely bizarre, but Zuidam's imaginative preference for emotional engagement over mere parody suggested a real compositional talent from whom I'd like to hear more. We also heard the British premiere, immediately repeated, of Hans Werner Henze's moving Trauer-Ode für Margaret Geddes (1997) for the exquisite combination of six cellos. The BCMG included the London premiere of Gerald Barry's Dead March, which, for this ardent enthusiast of his music, sadly fell somewhat flat.
LSO / Previn, Barbican, London
You have to wonder what it was that Benjamin Britten knew that the Japanese didn't. In 1939, he was one of several Europeans commissioned to write works to mark the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese dynasty. The work he submitted was deemed inappropriate to the occasion. It began with a sound closely akin to the crack of doom. It was called Sinfonia da Requiem. And then came Pearl Harbor.
Britten's first major orchestral work was prophetic in more ways than one. It loudly proclaimed a future master at work. The assurance of the piece is staggering even now in the light of all that followed, and in a performance such as we heard here from André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, it still makes you sit up. Or even, in the case of the vindictive scherzo, run for cover. This astonishingly original take on the Dies Irae might best be characterised as a rush to judgement, all manner of demons sneering, snapping, yapping at one's heels. Humankind as lemmings headed for the precipice.
The LSO trumpets and horns took most of the honours here; the almost cartoonish spasms at the climax were properly, grotesquely comic, twitching towards the hopeful serenity of Britten's lofty lullaby. Lots of strings on hand to give it a proper sheen.
At the opposite end of the evening, another young man's imagination was working overtime and then some on a not dissimilar scenario. Death and Transfiguration, the 25-year-old Richard Strauss's graphic, almost cinematic head-to-head with the hereafter, is as accomplished but nowhere near as sophisticated a piece of conceptual symphonic art as Britten's. More spasms here, timpani hammering across the bar to depict feverish convulsions.
Previn seemed slightly embarrassed by its tastelessness. He failed to push the contrasts, drive the delirious allegros, hype up the fulfilment. It was somehow too uniform, too careful, too measured. For all the lustre of the playing, the satisfying welter of sound as the pearly gates were flung wide, it didn't quite deliver, so to speak.
I suppose you could say that the final item on the programme did, though how anyone (and in particular the composer, who must have been thinking of the royalties) could countenance the stitch-up (literally) that is the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier is beyond me. We're not even sure who was responsible for it. Which is hardly surprising, given that no one, surely, would knowingly put their hand up to it. For Previn (no doubt mindful of his successful sojourns in Vienna), this poorly edited trawl through the really naughty, calorific bits of the score – will someone explain to me, what is the point of the trio without voices? – made the biggest splash and drew the loudest applause of the whole evening.
The highlight of the concert should have been the one true masterpiece: Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. But John Mark Ainsley was indisposed, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson, gamely stepping into the breach, was only sporadically on top of what is unquestionably one of the toughest pieces in the repertoire.
There were illuminating phrases: the "howling storm" at the heart of Blake's "Elegy"; the "wild echoes flying" with a touch of heldentenor at the climax of Tennyson's "Nocturne"; the rapt transition from sleep to death in Keats's "Sonnet". But everything is hard fought for now, and the tortuous tessitura of the "Dirge" finally brought defeat. David Pyatt's accomplished solo horn was left to echo what might have been.
Edward SeckersonReuse content