London Times

A contemporary premiere is uncompromising;Concert;First night

Geoff Brown
406 words
17 February 2004
The Times
(c) 2004 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

Ferneyhough Day Queen Elizabeth Hall ***

WAS it defiance or ignorance that led the London Sinfonietta to programme their day of obeisance to the stone heart of contemporary music, Brian Ferneyhough, on St Valentine's Day? I wonder. For Josephine and Joe Public there were easily assimilated South Bank delights: a Fats Waller tribute at the Purcell Room, smoochy popular classics at the Festival Hall.

Us, we put aside melody and red roses for the glories of pondering Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia.

For Ferneyhough buffs the Tableaux was a specially significant British premiere.

Here was the first chance to taste a slice of his opera Shadowline, inspired by the work of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin and due to premiere in Munich in May (London pants behind a year later). No singing here: just Roderick Williams narrating poems as blithely impenetrable as Ferneyhough's composing practises. A double whammy, then: yet against the odds eloquence poked through, in the changing chamber textures at least and the ending's quiet collapse. Heavens knows how you could stage this stretch (the opera's last scene); the dramatic content could be fitted on the end of a pin.

Not so with 1982's Carceri d'Invenzione I, the densely chaotic and febrile piece (after Piranesi) that kicked this day of concerts and workshops into bed. The Sinfonietta and their conductor Martyn Brabbins (and earlier the Arditti Quartet) displayed the most awesome virtuosity and stamina in the service of music hard to love. By no means all music was Ferneyhough's, though the accretion of pieces by youngish composers scarcely supplied much variety.

Three works were given their first performances. By far the most individual was Brian Herrington's Symphonia, which put aural memories of the composer's Texas childhood through the mincer. The spatial games of Dai Fujikura's Fire Station also packed a punch. But elsewhere composers pretty much conversed with their own backsides, ladling out the usual international new music sounds (scurrying strings, sliding brass, eruptive percussion) while avoiding any contact with real life.

Ferneyhough stayed aloof in his own way -he appeared only in a filmed interview, rattling off impressive intellectual disquisitions. For proof that the man is flesh and blood, you need to turn to his recreations in Who's Who: "reading, wine, cats".

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2004