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In the cinder of the little skull

Queen Elizabeth Hall
05/22/1999 -  
Harrison Birtwhistle The Silk House Tatoo (UK premiere of complete work)
Magnus Lindberg Related Rocks (London premiere)
Louis Andriessen The Last Day (UK premiere)

Gwilym Bowen (treble)
London Sinfonietta, London Sinfonietta Voices, Oliver Knussen (conductor)

The London Sinfonietta's second New to London program presented more difficult music in several senses than the first. It was louder, more synthesized, less narrative or programmatic, and, in the end, frightening. All three works performed what Birtwhistle referred to as secret theatre, using physical and musical space to construct something mysterious and powerful.

The Silk House Tatoo is named for Birtwhistle's West Country home, but the only domestic thing about it is the confined space in which it is performed. A drummer sits in the centre. Two trumpets play first at music stands in front of and behind the drummer, or facing each other from either side. The trumpet players walk around the circle (in this performance marked by a spotlight which initially reveals the players from complete darkness) between their two positions, twice anti-clockwise, once clockwise. Stephen Pruslin's programme note points out that, while the form is that of an astronomical globe or compass, the assymetrical movement of the players makes it like a weather cock, blown around a fixed point.

The music suitably evokes an artificial structure restisting, but strongly affected by, the elements. The drum plays the tatoo of the title, a regular beat at the fixed centre. The trumpets play contrasting movements, two measured but cumulatively exciting fanfares surrounding a pair of more chaotic movements. Archetypical Birtwhistle (who has a knack for archetypes), and a thoroughly engaging seven minutes.

The pun in the title of Magnus Lindberg's Related rocks sums it up completely. Two keyboards, percussion and a prerecorded tape of sampled sounds, some from Lindberg's other works, present a geological development of rough-hewn groups of sounds in a driving, visceral idiom. (Humpty Dumpty's lumps of thunder rolling about the place came to mind, particularly if you visualized them as heavy metal.) Related rocks seems to be purely about the enjoyment of loud, driving sounds.

Louis Andriessen's The Last Day uses similarly brutal effects to evoke another world completely. It consists of settings of two poems. The first is the last supper, written in 1993 by the Dutch poet Lucebert, and sung in Dutch by male voices, with the singers sitting among the orchestra. It uses images from the Gospels of the last supper and the crucifixion to evoke the physical experience of death. The voices are largely submerged in a chaotic orchestral part that evokes, perhaps, the fabric of the world coming apart.

This setting stops three times for the second poem, sung in English by a treble against a quiet, sustained accompaniment. The traditional Dutch poem, A woman and her lass (the wretched death's head is similar, with a Calvinist slant, to the Lyke-Wake Dirge set by Britten in the Serenade for tenor and horn. A young woman goes to the charnel house to find her mother's skull, brings home the skull of a strange man by mistake (everyone is indistinguishable after death) and is told of the tortures of the afterlife.

The text, which is clearly audible, suggests that our fear of death comes from within us. We go looking for knowledge of what happens when we die, and terrify ourselves, to death as it were, with its unknowability. But the first poem and its destructive music come back to remind us of the physical realities of death, which can only be disturbing.

This performance was made particularly striking by Gwilym Bowen, who sang superbly and with incredible professionalism. He looked alarmingly small and vulnerable surrounded by the black-dressed orchestra and singers. Which must be what Andriessen has in mind, on the platform as well as musically. He probably didn't plan for the moving sight of the huge and hairy Oliver Knussen escorting a small blond boy on and off the stage.

The Last Day is the first part of a trilogy which will have its British premiere as a complete work at the Proms on 26 August.

H.E. Elsom



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