In the cinder of the little skull
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Harrison Birtwhistle The Silk House Tatoo (UK premiere of
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
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.