S&H Concertreview

PROM 41: Bach arr. Stravinsky Chorale Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch"
Stravinsky Canticum Sacrum
Xenakis Polla ta dina
Kenneth Hesketh The Circling Canopy of Night
Hans Werner Henze Symphony No. 1
20th August 2001 (CT)

Christopher Gillett tenor David Wilson-Johnson bass-baritone
London Sinfonietta and London Sinfonietta Chorus conducted by Oliver Knussen


The atmosphere was characteristically laid back in the Royal Albert Hall for this late night prom with many of the audience in the arena adopting relaxed, out stretched positions on their backs! Semi comatose or not we were treated to a fascinatingly contrasted programme that included two early works by late twentieth century masters, two diverse yet related works by Stravinsky and a recent piece by one of the up and coming stars on the British musical scene.

The relationship between the two Stravinsky pieces lies in their conception for performance in St. Marks, Venice. With those acoustics in mind both works sounded well in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall, particularly when such care is taken with the instrumental and vocal balance as was evident here, a characteristic of Knussenís preparation. Scored for a Stravinskian band of trumpets, trombones, flutes, oboes, cor anglais, bassoons, harp, violas and double basses coupled with a mixed chorus the ensemble is notable for its exclusion of violins and clarinets. It struck me part way through the Chorale Variations that Knussenís own skilfully crafted orchestration owes much to Stravinsky in its textural transparency (Music for a Puppet Court in particular came to mind) and throughout these two performances there was great care taken to ensure that the parts were always heard, with careful and delicate pointing of the individual instrumental voices where required. The fast figurative wind parts in the first variation were particularly lucid, as were the nifty brass parts in the later variations. It is clearly apparent that Stravinsky pays great respect to his original material whilst making the orchestration and subtle harmonic and counterpoint changes very much his own. Canticum Sacrum ad honorem Sancti Marci nominis (to give the work its complete title) was completed shortly before the Chorale Variations and is light years away in its starkly astringent, Webern influenced harmonic world. This was a performance of authority, from the tough yet celebratory opening, to the supremely confident delivery of the solo vocal parts by Christopher Gillett and David Wilson-Johnson in the third and fifth variations respectively, to the fine sound of the complete instrumental and vocal forces in the final variation. The imaginative orchestration coloured with the distinctive sound of bass trumpet and contrabass trombone belongs uniquely to Stravinsky.

Xenakis wrote Polla ta dina in 1962 just seven years after Stravinsky finished Canticum sacrum. It is a brief work of admirable individuality and sounded amazingly fresh in this performance in spite of the fact that it is approaching its fortieth birthday. For a composer whose work relied almost totally on mathematical formulae in its creation there is real music to be heard here. From the manic fanfare of the opening to the at times almost engine like effect of the dense string glissandos that form such a feature of the scoring, this piece packs a real punch and it is hard to believe that it could receive a better performance than this, both ensemble and chorus demonstrating great accuracy combined with genuine understanding.

Kenneth Hesketh wrote The Circling Canopy of Night in response to a joint commission from Faber Music and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in 1999. He took his inspiration from a number of sources dealing with the medieval concept of the universe, in which the universe was structured vertically, with earth at the lowest point and the Empyrean at the top. Scored for an ensemble of sixteen players it falls into a number of clearly defined, yet continuous sections, running to just under twenty five minutes in length. This is a work that impressed me immediately. Hesketh has a fabulous ear for detail, the textures often contrapuntally dense and complex, yet with a transparency and clarity that draws you into his sound world. For me the work has an appropriately nocturnal feel to it. Not that it is subdued, far from it. Rather, there are all manner of intriguing, fascinating sounds, as well as moments of real beauty. I found it closest perhaps, to Knussenís own music in its spirit, indeed having seen the score since, the opening instruction of "fantastico" is one I have noted in Knussen scores on more than one occasion. Hesketh has his own voice however and is undoubtedly a name we will hear more of. The London Sinfonietta played marvellously, with some particularly memorable bass clarinet sounds. No surprise then that the composer looked genuinely delighted when he appeared on stage at the conclusion.

Hans Werner Henzeís early First Symphony is perhaps most indebted to Stravinsky, thus the final work completed a natural line in this thoughtful programme, from Stravinsky himself through Henze to Knussen and Hesketh, all composers with a highly natural inner ear. Henze wrote this symphony at the tender age of twenty-one, subsequently carrying out an extensive revision in 1963. Interestingly, I find little that can be described as Germanic in the work and the slow movement in particular is as close to pastoralism as Henze ever got (there are passages that remind me somewhat curiously of Britten). The performance was once again, highly committed and the viola solo at the heart of the central Notturno, particularly affecting. The final Allegro con moto is the toughest of the three movements and the Stravinsky influence is once again evident in the sometimes motor like rhythms. The brass were highly effective here, providing a dynamic conclusion to a rewarding concert.

Christopher Thomas

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