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S & H Concert Review

PIANO CIRCUS Erkki-Sven Tüür- Transmission Nikki Yeoh- Six as 1
Thomas Adès Darknesse Visible Conlon Nancarrow- Study No.5
Miguel del Aguila Conga Line in Hell Heiner Goebbels Scutigeras Queen Elizabeth Hall, 13 March 2002 and CDs Transmission and Surrogate Cities (PGW)


Six Steinway grands, six energetic pianists and six composers of mostly unknown recent music made for an electrifying evening. The first half was a perfectly programmed sequence of considerable variety, with a transcription of the Adès solo piano 'explosion of Dowland's lute song In darknesse let mee dwell ' as a quiet centre (it was one of those occasions in which darkness dwelt in the hall too, making it impossible to study our programmes!).

The featured, and already lauded, Scutigeras 'with sculptural lighting', by the music-theatre composer Heiner Goebbels, carried a lengthy and portentous commentary referring to Robbe-Grillet & Kafka but proved a disappointment in the event. Only two of the 6 Steinways remained on stage for Goebbels after the interval (one pianist seemed to be repeatedly pulling out the entrails from one of them); there was a bank of assorted electronic keyboards back stage, fairly invisible behind music stands, with hasty comings and goings between the multi-skilled performers who put their hands to whatever came next. It was good to see a clavichord placed centre stage front, prettily tinkling occasionally but, given that visual prominence, it was under-used by the procession of pianists taking turns to open it, play a little whilst managing on either side a sheaf of small pieces of paper, before closing it and rushing to the next destination. Panels of white strip lights flashed slow or fast, reminding one by contrast of the more colourful light sculpture above, driven by the wind outside. Not an inspiring visual picture, but the real trouble was that the music, with its heavy programme, sounded shapeless and often too desultory to engage the listening ear.

PianoCircus was formed in 1989 to play Reich's Six Pianos, and three original members are still with them. The minimalist movement is never far away in their commissions, but there was a wonderful blurring of textures at the heart of Tuur's Transmission and Aguila's Latin-American inspired Conga in Hell was at one exciting and a little sinister. A rhythmically intricate Nancarrow player-piano study went well with six players, and Adès should be invited to apply his imagination to composing an original piece for pianocircus.

Several of the best of this selection of pieces can be heard in their recommendable new CD Transmission pcd003 which, although lacking the repose offered by Adès, does have a wonderful bell-inspired, clangorous Carillon with some of the pianos sounding as if microtuned (though the skimpy cover notes speaks of 'a detuned whirl of sound only possible in a digital age'). I found Tüür's Transmission less magical than in QEH on the CD, with close miking and greater clarity, and to my taste there are a few too many relentless machine-like pieces, but this is a group of expert young musicians, who share wide-ranging interests and are constantly experimenting and reaching out in numerous collaborations; they deserve the serious attention of major composers.

After writing this above, I received the CD of Surrogate Cities from some of which parts of Scutigeras had been arranged for six pianists by Richard Harris and the composer Heiner Goebbels. A one-time member of an avant-rock group, Goebbels has worked extensively with literary texts, here excerpts from Kafka, Heiner Mueller and others, all given in English. The multi-media Surrogate Cities, commissioned by the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, explores the complexities of urban life. Heard without visual distraction and in its original scoring, this CD has been a more positive experience for me than several Heiner Goebbels musical-theatrical events encountered in UK and abroad (hampered by not understanding German) and it has convinced me that Goebbels is to be taken very seriously; a telling example of why critical opinion must always remain provisional.

D & C (for large orchestra) and Suite for Sampler and Orchestra address the 'cities' concept in abstract music. The overall concept reflects city life and the sampler suite has subtle Baroque musical allusions, evokes Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Lyons and St. Petersburg in passing, and rescues Jewish cantors from cleaned-up 1920s and '30s recordings (c.f. Uri Caine in his Mahler recreations). Three dramatic Horatian Songs (adapted from Livy) carry a terrific punch from soul-jazz diva Jocelyn B. Smith, who asks us to consider "a Horatian who saves his city but kills his sister, and is both a victor and a murderer". She joins David Moss for In the Country of Last Things, about loss and uncertainty. Anything may happen - jazz riffs and rock licks appear amongst the frequent surprises. The Junge Deutsche Philharmonie under Peter Rundel must have found this project inspiring, and the recording and presentation are what we have become used to expect from ECM. Intellectually ambitious and challenging, Surrogate Cities is often beautiful too and not to be missed: ECM New Series 1688 465 338-2.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Track list of the new pianocircus CD Transmission pcd003 (Observer CD of the week):

Erkki-Sven Tüür- Transmission
Nikkii Yeoh- Six as 1
Barak Schmool- Stolen Train
Peter Bengston- Carillon
Sarunas Nakas- Merz Machine
Conlon Nancarrow- Study No.5
Huw Warren- Riot!

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