Classical Music: If you really want to know about music, ask a composer

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Classical Music: Endymion


Purcell Room, SBC, London

When a contemporary ensemble invites composers to devise an evening's music of their choice, we should be in for a few surprises. Ideally, after all, a concert should feel like a process of continuous revelation. Both John Woolrich and Mark-Anthony Turnage, chosen by the Endymion Ensemble for their "Synectics" sponsored series at the Purcell Room, came up with fascinating programmes. There were revelations in plenty involving names from the past, and these revelations also served to spotlight the living composers.

This was certainly true of Woolrich's choice, given on Monday 9 February to a packed house, and with an absence of commentary that made his sequence especially eloquent. His mosaic of musical fragments amounted to a composition in itself. Unfinished gems by Schoenberg, Mozart and Stravinsky rubbed shoulders with tantalising miniatures, mostly no more than a couple of phrases long, by Schumann, Janacek and Wagner.

This material, perfect yet incomplete, called to mind Valery's dictum that a poem is not completed, only abandoned; and Woolrich, a composer who favours small-scale forms without being a miniaturist, might agree.

As a setting for more recent music, however, his choice was also thematic. For each of these works related to weighty thoughts of approaching death or of lost love. In this context, the inclusion of Birtwistle's White and Light Celan settings, and Woolrich's own A Farewell, Berceuse and Adagissimo said much; so, too, did Blood Sky for viola, by Jo Johnson, who died tragically last year. Her memory was honoured in Deirdre Gribbin's To Bathe Her Body in Whiteness, inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. When a life, like a poem, is abandoned, the only response, as in the hushed and moving close of Gribbin's piece, is silence.

No less rich in connections, Mark-Anthony Turnage's choice this Monday also featured elegies: Memorandum for soprano saxophone, and Two Elegies Framing a Shout. Both were played by Martin Robertson, the composer's long-time interpreter. His dark and jazzy tone matched the uniquely heartfelt Turnage sound of the second of the two shout-framing pieces.

Other works reflected aspects of the composer's admiration. Knussen's exquisite Songs without Voices was a homage to an admired teacher, whose sense of arabesque is highly regarded. Stravinsky's string-quartet Concertino was explained as a serendipitous choice, yet its continuous form and partition of rhythmic weight were not without analogies to similar Turnage structures. The surprise was Morton Feldman's subdued Clarinet Quintet; inspiration, it was explained, as music the antithesis of Turnage's own, with subtle links to Birtwistle.

Listening carefully to its slow unfolding, you got the point. Analysts may offer weighty tomes, but, as the Endymion Ensemble has shown, for original insights about music, your best bet still lies with composers.

Nicholas Williams