New Music; There's rhythm to their mayhem

Click to follow
TO CONCLUDE a short programme on Friday at the Barbican, the Frankfurt- based Ensemble Modern, conducted by Peter Rundel, offered a meticulous, but insufficiently earthy account of Stravinsky's Les noces, with a crack quartet of British solo vocalists and the BBC Singers.

There was no lack of earthiness with the main point of the evening, though: the chance to hear George Antheil's rarely-played Ballet mecanique. This ensemble gave the work four years ago at the Proms, when the Albert Hall severely blunted the impact of its audacious scoring: a boisterous combination of pianos and percussion. This infamous score was initially intended for the impossible line-up of 16 player pianos, plus an aeroplane propeller, a siren and sundry other noises. The present performance was the British premiere of a version adding two player pianos to six pianos and 11 percussionists.

The problems of co-ordinating the mechanical player pianos with an already unwieldy ensemble were overcome by Jurgen Hocker - who arranged this version and controlled his magnificent, centrally placed beasts (Twenties Ampico originals) on stage - by using a computer to operate their perforated rolls. The result proved an even more marvellous apogee of modernist mayhem, securely underpinned by a frightening rhythmic rigour.

Spectacle, and more rhythmic rigour, were also on offer the following night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. On what I imagine is a lot less money than that enjoyed by their German counterparts, the London Sinfonietta can still mount quite a show, including a plethora of pre-concert events that made one long for a few moments peace and quiet before the more formal proceedings had even begun.

The main programme itself was devoted entirely to British or London premieres, beginning with Harrison Birtwistle's "The Silk House Tattoo", an "occasional piece" of continuously intriguing substance for two perambulating trumpeters (John Wallace and Edward Carroll) and a side-drummer (David Hockings). On a single hearing, the wild complexities of Magnus Lindberg's "Belated Rocks", for two keyboard players and two percussionists, didn't make a lot of sense to me.

But Louis Andriessen's "The Last Day" had just the mixture of punchy immediacy and intriguing technical subtleties to sustain the listener readily through its half an hour. "The Last Supper", an apocalyptic poem by the modern Dutch writer Lucebert, constitutes the main text of Andriessen's work, that forms the first panel in a "Trilogy of the Last Day" to be performed at this year's Proms on 26 August. Recommended listening.

Keith Potter