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Ricordi - Beyond 200 Donatoni, Lim, Poppe & Sciarrino

Kings Place, London 25 November 2008

Celebrating 200 years of publishing contemporary music RICORDI (VERDI'S MUSIC PUBLISHING COMPANY) presented a special and unusual evening in London, almost entirely given over to instrumental solos, with virtuoso musicians of the Australian ensemble Elision pushed to their limits and those of their instruments.

Marketing is all these days. A fine recital of contemporary guitar music given by an Italian guitarist brought only a dozen people to Kings Place, but the first of two bicentenary celebrations of the the Italian publisher Ricordi had Hall Two full, with extra chairs being brought in for the overflow.

There was a buzz of anticipation and the proceedings began on a high with trumpeter Tristram Williams giving the first of three ground breaking pieces by featured composer Liza Lim. Two of them, Wild Winged-One (2007) and Sonorous Body, are related (in ways the notes did not make very clear) to an opera most of us will not have known. With an exciting vocabulary of extended techniques, the only cause for regret was that the venue was, for some audience members, unsuitable for so loud an instrument as the trumpet, having to cover their ears through some of the climaxes - and worry whether the player might risk damaging his own...

Sonorous Body had Richard Haynes' mellow clarinet displaying such free, expressive bending of tones as to seem an organic being, not limited at all by the usual chromatic semitones. In the programme's only duo, Lim's Inguz (1996), Haynes with cellist Severine Ballon explored pairs of opposites, "conforming and contrasting, congruences and divergences" [Graeme Jennings].

On her own, Ballon played a major unaccompanied cello piece by the young German composer Enno Poppe (currently being featured at the Huddersfield Festival) which explores variations in vibrato with a 'constantly fluctuating tonal palette'. For many of us, however, the most enduring memry of this evening will be of the old masters, Donatoni and Sciarrino. Donatoni's bi-partite Short had Tristram Williams loud in the first half, deploying the plunger mute; quieter and ore subtle in the second half utilising the harmon mute; his all too brief Ciglio for solo violin was the most lucid of all the music in the evening. One easily followed his systematic manipulations of a series of musical ideas one after the other until each 'burns itself out or metamorphosesinto the next'; delicious.

But the most enduring memory was Salvatore Sciarrino's 6 Capricci per violino solo (1976) given with ear- and eye- riveting skill by Jennings (2nd violin of the Arditti Quartet 1994-2005). These were Paganini for now, all too little known despite being over thirty years old. Mostly very quiet, sccdwith occasional eruptions, it was enthralling to watch the extraordinary fingering and bowing - the latter sometimes fluttering like the wings of a hovering insect. At twenty mins duration, this was the major item of the concert, and might better have been placed last before the interval. The only reservation (a slight, pernickety one) is that the silences which are integral in Sciarrino's music, were invaded by the sound of, probably, the air conditioning; not loud, but sufficiently audible for those of us unable to filter it out to compromise the music just a little. I regularly remind myself of the arrangements in the radio studios at Venice where, in high summer 1993, I attended concerts at the Biennale at which the machine was turned off during the music, and back on again during the intervals between the items. Can't this be included in the briefings for all new and upgraded concert halls?

I thought to buy the CD of Sciarrino's Capricci, but find it is deleted, with a few copies available from abroad at prohibitive cost, given UK's worsened exchange rate in the present crisis.

That leaves one to hope that this special concert might find its way onto a new CD from Elision??

Peter Grahame Woolf

A second concert to celebrate Ricordi's bicentenary is scheduled for February 24th at Kings Place.

Elision CDs: Richard Barrett and Chris Dench

Two have been received for consideration, of compositions by Richard Barrett and Chris Dench, neither disc new.

Barrett's, like the Ricordi concert, comprises mostly solos. Carl Rosman is a transcendently skilled clarinettist, and he also performs as a one-man-band. A percussion solo is endearing, despite its title: "abglanzbeladen . . . auseinandergeschrieben" the title of which is a sample of what we are up against... A piece for solo violin is repellent - scratchy sounds mostly - and the composer himself helps to make an electric guitar sound as nasty as imaginable.

Dench too has Rosman spinning a web of wondrously flexible sounds on clarinet, and an equally skilled oboist in another piece. In two ensemble works, the mezzo soloist's obscure text is (purposely) only semi-audible against an instrumental group...

Both these composers seem to want to deliberately exclude most of the few music lovers prepared to explore far-out musics with totally incomprehensible verbiage which might as well be in Japanese; they seem determined to preserve an in-group to themselves.

Yet I was glad to listen through both discs, though no way can I recommend them to Christmas purchasers...


I have been asked to add some thoughts to the above review. I don’t intend to contradict anything already stated but, rather, to offer an alternative perspective.


A thwack and a howl and Barrett’s CD begins with the startling Interference, written for clarinettist Carl Rosman. It’s almost two minutes before a clarinet is heard, though, as a literally kicking and screaming Rosman thumps pedal bass drum and sings in a terrifying falsetto (and occasional basso profundo). This opening salvo is one of the most immediately arresting passages in recent composition, and the piece – and Rosman – miraculously maintains this intensity throughout. I hesitate to say what ‘the point’ of Barrett’s music is, because to do so would be a disservice, but I would say that you have to appreciate such red-blooded ferocity in order to begin to get something out of it. If you were in an East End pub with other ‘new complexity’ (sorry) composers, his music would be the most useful if things got violent. Even a mild-mannered instrument like the vibraphone in Abglanzbeladen/ Auseinandergeschrieben sounds like it’s straining at a chain leash.


Barrett achieves this vividness, I think, through the unrelenting detail of his music. He is exceptionally sensitive to the physical demands of instrumental performance, and in live performance this unmistakably comes across in the succession of contradictory, perverse, but highly idiomatic gestures that he forces his performers through. On recording, such visual information is lost (although the demanding nature of each piece remains obvious), but we still have music that, no matter how closely you listen, not matter how small you break down its individual units, never stops overwriting everything that has come before it. It’s an exhausting way to listen but extremely satisfying, since the music keeps rewarding your imagination with new, ever more intricate pathways to explore. So powerful is the hold over the listener that those moment of relative repose – quieter passages at the end of Air for violin – sound much more complex than they actually are. Even the silences become hugely energised.


Chris Dench I haven’t yet taken to so easily, although in fact he is responsible for some of the more immediately beautiful music of these two CDs: the opening of Ik(s)land[s], in which the music barely rouses itself before slumping further and further out of reach as though disappearing not only into the silence that preceded it, but into some negative space beyond this; this is a case in point. In contrast to Barrett, however, Dench’s textures tend to be more consistent. They’re rich in polyphonic detail, but tend towards an expressionistic sameyness for several bars at a time. This makes a lot of his music a little dry for my tastes, even in those works with a vocalist, although Funk (Rosman again, with percussionist Peter Neville) avoids this problem. It goes without saying that ELISION are the best imaginable performers of this repertoire, and any problems of comprehension are mine alone.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson