A lockdown masterpiece and the Jessica Rabbit of concertos: contemporary classical roundup

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

So it finally happened: I experienced my first vocal setting of the word ‘Covid’. An encounter that was, inevitably, more harrowing than when I caught the virus itself. ‘Coviiiiiiid!’ yowled the singer, while the orchestra emitted a boom, crack, snap, rumble rumble, shriek, bang, dissonance dissonance. Rice Crispies fans, eat your heart out.

It was part of Exiles, a 30-minute new commission by Julian Anderson for the opening concert of the LSO season. And though this work for soprano, chorus and orchestra did have its touching moments, and attractively translucent and lustrous moments, all terrifically anal and French (music that held out its pinkie), it had the great misfortune to sit right next to a knockout bit of word setting, Natural History (1998) by Judith Weir, so economical and direct.

On the whole the big beasts fluffed it. If you were waiting for a lockdown master- piece, forget it. Thomas Adès raided all the juicy bits of his opera Exterminating Angel and still couldn’t stitch together a symphony of substance for the CBSO at the Proms.

For aesthetic sustenance you had to avoid the fat middle and head to the skint fringes, where the Overton window of aesthetics is flung wide open. To Cafe Oto, for example, where you could see a blistering filmed performance of Poulomi Desai taking an axe to her sitar, delicately shaving glistening shards of sound off the strings, or a song about the Bezos space trip — ‘That’s a lot of money at the top of a rocket/ I hope they make it there safe’ — from Jennifer Walshe that made me laugh-cry.

Thank god, too, for the concert series Music We’d Like To Hear, a modest but consistently revelatory annual programme of new or newish music. MWLTH has resided for nearly a decade in a small Wren church, St Mary at Hill, a calm, perfect little cube tucked beneath the cresting Walkie Talkie. Their pièce de resistance this year was letting out the beast that is Cogluotobusisletmesi (1975–9), by the Indian composer Clarence Barlow, in a version for two pianists (the fearless Mark Knoop and Siwan Rhys) and prerecorded piano. It’s both a monstrous and deeply sexy work, with a notoriously complex score so densely splattered with notes it resembles a Jackson Pollock.

How thrilling to hear music so unafraid and committed and frankly insane, Barlow’s labyrinthine computations at the service of pure, possessed, primordial polyphony. The four lines of music distributed over three pianos allowed you to see the explosive mushroomy tangle play out even more clearly, as a single, demented, quasi-religious- sounding bass line morse codes out a rhythm, starts skipping up the keyboard, leaping and bounding psychotically, then splinters, the second piano taking over the central tentacle of sound around which everything mazes. When the microtonal third piano swoops in, all hell breaks loose. Ancient and futuristic, it mingles the smell of incense and hard drives. (The title, by the way, is Turkish for ‘Multiple Bus Operations’: Barlow apparently nicked it from the side of an Anatolian coach he was travelling on. Yeah, me neither.)

I say there’ve been no lockdown masterpieces but then I went to Berlin’s Philharmonie to catch the latest from Rebecca Saunders (who, considering all her music is premièred on the continent, it’s easy to forget is British), and I heard two in a row. Her piano concerto to an utterance (which comes to London in 2022), is electrifyingly whooshy, a paean to the smear and the smudge and the splash. The gloved hands of the pianist Nicholas Hodges joyride up and down the keyboard, hurling out skidding glissandi and thuggish clusters at the Lucerne Festival orchestra, who spit them back, or let them ripple out, or explode them cosmically, the sonic debris, like the remains of a distant air disaster, floating down around us. Only at the end does the pace and violence let up; the piano seems to catch its reflection in a pool and, with the orchestra’s consent, stops to sit and admire it.

Her concerto for two percussionists void (2013–14) is more straightforwardly jaw- dropping in that the originality is just so concentrated, especially in the final minute: the sandy spray of the snare drums set off purely by holding them up to the air vibrations of two activated bass drums, which an electric guitar then vaporises.

It’s one of the great mysteries of music, how something so mechanical or technical — there are 13 pages of detailed instructions for void — can be so visceral or full of soul; and how other things, so seemingly visceral or straight from the soul, can feel so mechanical. I’m not altogether convinced, for example, that Ruth Gipps wasn’t in fact an AI bot, who was fed the works of Vaughan Williams and Elgar, and programmed to churn out landfill pastoralisms like her Symphony No. 2 (1945), which I refuse to believe could be anything but satire — sincere, and it would be one of the worst things I’ve ever heard at the Proms.

British programmers either like things clever and inert or sentimental and dumb. There was certainly sentiment, and drama, in the new Violin Concerto by Mark Simp- son for Nicola Benedetti and the LSO, and energy in the soaring melodies and Mission Impossible rhythms. But it was the drama of Bruno Tonioli delivering a verdict on Strictly. Simpson packs his work with all the things that signify ‘passion’ or ‘drama’, generating a rich, ripe, pouty performance of emotion, a Jessica Rabbit of concertos: flashing everything there is to flash. It’s not boring, but the unrelenting breathlessness of it all makes you feel as though you’re being dry-humped by a slobbery dog.

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