Review: Avant-Garde: Hyperion Ensemble

AVANT-GARDE Hyperion Ensemble Purcell Room, London
Rival fans clashed in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer last Friday night as technical gremlins and confusions about starting times caused delays for its two waiting audiences. While Steve Martland promised "a heck of a wallop" in the larger hall, the Romanian composers Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram and their Hyperion Ensemble, in the Purcell Room, were offering (according to the London Musicians' Collective, which mounted this programme in collaboration with BBC Radio 3's "Mixing It" as part of their latest New Aura series) "a foray into the farthest reaches of beautiful noise - the sound of a continent tearing apart".

The curious interruptions in John Wall's Fractuur, the electro-acoustic opener to this concert, suggested deliberate ploy as much as technical hitch. But there was no mistaking the false start to the ensemble's first effort - one of two pieces in Hyperion's set by Avram - and, though her compositions proved hard to tell apart from his, it was nearly 9pm before we heard one of Dumitrescu's four works.

Dumitrescu was born in 1944 and his Bucharest-based ensemble has been playing for more than 20 years. The programme proclaimed his debt to both "phenomenology and acousmatics" in the creation of "processes which confer a genuine force of suggestion and penetration". What this amounted to was a series of 10- to 15-minute pieces, all world premieres, for a slowly shuffled line-up of half-a-dozen performers on both conventional instruments (violin, viola, cello, double-bass, clarinet and saxophones, the last played by a Greek guest, Theodore Kerkezos) and a few unusual ones (prepared piano, assorted percussion and a vioda - a sort of overweight viola with more attitude than individuality). The ensemble was amplified, erratically, and tape featured several times. Some inept lighting effects also dogged the proceedings.

Dumitrescu's music suggests a comparison with Horatio Radulescu, a Paris- based compatriot who offers a similar but more vital and competent approach to exploring the innards of sound.

Hyperion's instruments are played unconventionally: drones and their attendant harmonic series expand into textures achieved with now familiar extended techniques - bowing behind the bridge, circular bowing, slackening the strings, using both string and wind instruments percussively - as well as tape.

Like Radulescu, Dumitrescu conducts with histrionic attention to each gesture, furthering the suggestion that the music's meaning encompasses personal realms hard for outsiders to fathom. For me, only his Fluxus II paced these materials with much sense of purpose, and that was because its shape - wall of sound succeeded by atmospheric drone, dramatically erupting into a repeat of the process - was so obvious. In seemingly both denying his players the fantasy of interactive improvisation and shunning the risky but stimulating potential of chance, Dumitrescu and Avram need to be much more imaginative with such materials, which can so easily, as here, sound tired and cliched. Perhaps there's something about being Romanian that explains such a phenomenon. But though readily allowing for the difficult circumstances under which their work was probably both created and performed, I can't honestly say it made much sense to me, either sonically or emotionally.