S&H Concert Review

IXION with conductor Michael Finnissy & Stephen Gutman (piano). The Warehouse, London 19 October 00

The BMIC is attracting full houses to its Cutting Edge autumn concerts at The Warehouse, a congenial venue (provided the weather is clement, as there is not enough space indoors, so the audience spills out into the courtyard for the interval). Ixion brought a varied programme of very recent British music of different stylistic persuasions, four of the pieces dated this year. Most of the composers were present to take their bows and appeared to be fairly young - dates of birth were not supplied. There was some confusion with programme changes and re-ordering, and the members of the ensemble were not all named; verbal announcements were made about the items as the concert progressed.

Stephen Gutman gave short piano pieces by Morgan Hayes and Luke Stoneham before ending his group with Joyrider by Geoff Hannan. This belied its title and turned out to be an indulgent, overlong joke; a compilation of clichés and figurations from 19th C. virtuoso piano literature, mocking typical gestures and suggesting that the composer had spent long, frustrating hours practising which he needed to get it our of his system.

Joe Cutler's Five Mobiles after Alexander Calder employed the instrumentation of Bartok's brilliant Contrasts, but he allowed the violin to become strangely submerged for most of the time, apart from a pizzicato passage towards the end. That oddity apart, they were intriguing and successful miniatures in a quasi-minimalist vein. Violinist Charles Mutter had his chance afterwards in Gerald Barry's solo Triorchic Blues (I prefer to call it Pawnbroker's Blues !) but his careful performance did not convey Barry's characteristic sense of danger and Irish abandon. (He seemed better suited to Michael Finnissy's Ének, based on Hungarian gypsy gestures & intervallic vocabulary, on NMC D043.)

The Ixion Ensemble fielded on this occasion a quartet of strings consisting of one each vln, vla, cello & bass (a useful combination in contemporary music, which deserves a new name) with clarinet, flutes, guitar, piano & percussion. Bryn Harrison's Ground (2000) was a soothing, sleepy piece which fulfilled pleasantly enough the composer's aim that it should develop very slowly 'to create the sense of an almost undifferentiated surface area'. Andrew Toovey's White Fire II (2000) replaced the scheduled Percussion Concerto (2000) - or was it the same piece renamed? He indulged his familiar predilection for screaming high wind instruments and their uncomfortable difference tones, which can be painful. In the middle there was relief in floating memories of a folk tune (?) with alto flute, celesta & a wash of delicate percussion, then a passage of fluttering like an aviary of small birds before a crescendo from the depths brought us back to fast, anarchic shrieking 'music' to finish.

Best by far for this listener was conductor Michael Finnissy's own Traum des Sängers (1994), dedicated to Andrew Toovey and featured on the Ixion CD [also to be reviewed NMC D043].This has strings (one-to-a-part as above) representing a sleeping minstrel, with guitar, clarinet and vibraphone conveying the 'imagined world' of his dreams; a piece of exceptional beauty, romantic and melodic, with small solos for each instrument and an enigmatic ending consisting of many short phrases punctuated with long pauses. For me (not a complete Finnissy devotee) this was the most haunting music of his I had heard since the Tunbridge Wells première of his String Trio, with its framework derived from Mahler.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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