fri 19/07/2024

BBC Proms: London Sinfonietta, BBC Singers, Atherton, Cadogan Hall | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: London Sinfonietta, BBC Singers, Atherton, Cadogan Hall

BBC Proms: London Sinfonietta, BBC Singers, Atherton, Cadogan Hall

Davies and Birtwistle slug it out in afternoon Prom

Sirs Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle reunited in another concert

Sirs Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies have now been at each others’ heels for almost 60 years. First, the composers were students together at the Royal Manchester College of Music. Then, once their careers began flourishing they kept rubbing against each other in concert programmes. Inevitable, really: the same organisations commissioned them; they were the Twin Peaks of British Modernism. Even now, for old times’ sake, the pair can’t escape each others’ shadow.

Since this Proms Saturday Matinee began with Sir PMD’s unaccompanied motet of 1997, Il rozzo martello, we knew Sir HB couldn’t be far behind. And there he was, roaring and savage in Angel Fighter, a very dramatic cantata of sorts, based on the Genesis story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel, written for the Bachfest Leipzig 2010. This was its British premiere.

The difference between the old colleagues’ pieces was immense, though by now not entirely surprising. Birtwistle’s score, graphic in detail, volcanic in force, almost an opera in miniature, hit us straight in the solar plexus. Davies’s motet seemed beautifully intellectual in design, but emotionally remote. Conducted by David Atherton, the BBC Singers’ tenors began with pastiche plainsong, inaugurating five lines of Dante. Then the vocal thread multiplied and tangled to cope with Michelangelo’s sonnet about artistic inspiration: where it comes from, what it leads to. Davies’s construct slimmed down tenderly in the last minutes, leaving us feeling mildly contemplative, suspended in mid-air. All bearable, I suppose, and skilfully sung; though compared, say, to his brilliant student opera Kommilitonen!, premiered at the Royal Academy of Music this March, Il rozzo martello seemed more a commission ticked off than a work PMD had been panting to write.

Birtwistle’s Angel Fighter, though, burst before us, piping hot, jointly forged in the fires of HB’s love of Bach (an influence on its form rather than the style) and his long-standing fascination with myth and primal impulses. It burst out from the performers, too. A veteran of the Leipzig premiere, the incisive tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts relished every pungent word in Stephen Plaice’s libretto as Jacob waited in the desert, moaned about the chorus’s jibes, then faced the higher challenge of an angel of God with a taste for hand-to-hand combat. Angelic counter-tenor Andrew Watts piped most eloquently too.

Bruiser Birtwistle landed many punches of his own, keeping speedy pace with the drama in a score full of baleful writhings (those opening bassoons), forceful arias and choral exchanges, and brilliant sharp edges (the blinding, shrill brass). Reunited with Atherton, their co-founder and first music director, the London Sinfonietta played with terrific panache; while the BBC Singers chipped in vividly as the desert observers, observing events beyond their ken. I had to be carried out on a stretcher.

Any light relief? We came closest with the world premiere of Champ-Contrechamp, a BBC commission from Georges Aperghis, born in Greece but French by adoption and his cultural disposition to the theatrical and absurd. Piano soloist Nicolas Hodges – the piece masquerades as a concerto – supplied an absurd touch himself by arriving in full evening rig, bow-tie, the lot, when all about were hanging loose. With Hodges’ gear you expected Brahms at least; but Aperghis limited the soloist to repeated jabbings and ticklings in a very narrow compass, stopping and starting as the Sinfonietta whirled around and about.

Married to the French film actress Édith Scob, Aperghis has obviously spent much time in the cinema. Hence the work’s title – a reference to the camera shots taken from alternating viewpoints, conventionally used to create dialogue exchanges between two characters. Hodges’ character, the piano, was mostly passive, sometimes aggressive; though charting the work’s ping-pong game quickly proved futile and unnecessary. Had the piece lasted longer than 15 minutes I’d have been driven to distracting thoughts, like whether PMD and HB exchange Christmas cards. But Champ-Contrechamp kept itself brief, tickled the ear, and ended. Bravo.

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