So it's farewell, then, to Markus Stenz, principal conductor of the London Sinfonietta since September 1994. He leaves them now to become chief conductor and artistic director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He takes with him the good wishes of new music supporters everywhere, and positive memories, it is hoped, of the British musical scene.
Both for Stenz himself and for the Sinfonietta's QEH audience, his farewell concert will long vibrate in the memory. Entitled "Farewell Songs", it was planned around a performance of the Abschiedsstucke, or "Farewell Pieces", by the German composer Wolfgang Rihm, for which a new song was promised but not delivered. The resulting programme change allowed Carlo, music for strings, sampler and tape by the Australian composer Brett Dean, to receive its European premiere. In addition, Oliver Knussen's Songs without Voices and Mark-Anthony Turnage's Twice Through the Heart gave an authentic taste of the repertoire with which the conductor has been most often linked during his period of tenure.
In his introduction, Stenz claimed that the linking theme of his farewell concert was the human voice. In fact, the more disturbing subjects that seemed to concern the pieces with which he had chosen to say goodbye were violence and murder. Granted, the four pristine maxi-miniatures of Knussen's Songs without Voices say nothing apart from what the listener gleans - a great deal - from the magic of their private poetical impulse. The jewelled aspect of the first, "Winter's Fall", and the restrained elegy, rising to brief yet potent frenzy, of the last, "Elegiac Arabesques", were finely caught by the Sinfonietta players in top form.
It was Brett Dean's Carlo, however, based on the chromatic madrigal Moro lasso by the notorious 16th-century composer and wife-murderer Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, that captured the real mood of the event, already established by Turnage's sombre account, to Jackie Kaye's arresting text, of a woman's provocation to murder. Suitably dressed in Holloway grey for the Turnage, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly gave a powerful interpretation of a woman's story, told while doing time. Feet slightly apart, Stenz, more crisply attired in snazzy black waistcoat, directed the piece with his usual precision, with his baton etching sharp, geometrical gestures in the air like some earnest young schoolmaster chalking Euclid at a blackboard.
Less evident strain was required for Carlo, where his role became that of policeman, directing the 15 solo strings to proceed with caution whenever their turn arrived to add something to the pre-recorded tape. The result, built on Gesualdo's awesome madrigal, could hardly fail to be effective, yet was also beautifully crafted on its own terms.
Rhim's Abschiedsstuck 1 took the opposite extreme, violently inventive to match the violence of its poem, which concerned the desecration of bodies. To the late 20th century, of course, this kind of thing is about as novel as the "Ode to Daffodils". None the less, it was good to hear Rosemary Hardy's assured account of the soprano line, and a percussion part that ended Stenz's farewell concert with a fiery crack of the whip.Reuse content