Last week the London Sinfonietta was in what its boss Andrew Burke jokingly but meaningfully called an existential crisis. Famous as a chamber orchestra devoted to the new – so new the music often comes with ink still dripping from the page – it was celebrating 50 years’ existence, in the course of which the Sinfonietta has acquired a past alongside its otherwise eternal present. And it’s an illustrious past, associated with everyone from the Beatles to Boulez, Berio, Birtwistle and just about every later 20th-century composer of distinction, whether or not the name starts with a B.
These days you might argue that the Sinfonietta’s flame doesn’t burn quite so brightly but it’s still very much engaged in “Unfinished Business” – the tag the Sinfonietta has attached to this anniversary season. Its core players remain the most brilliant around. And its sprawling Birthday Concert at the Royal Festival Hall was a landmark event that looked both to the past, in music by modern giants such as Stravinsky and Ligeti, and to the future, in a truly impressive sequence of world premieres.
Best among them was a piano concerto written by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen for the left hand alone – not as a virtuosic technical exercise but as a reflection on his own physical limitations as someone born without a fully functioning right arm. The pianist here was Tamara Stefanovich, the conductor George Benjamin. And the result was the most poignantly engaging new concerto I’ve heard in ages.
But the Sinfonietta had something else up its sleeve: a riotous set of variations on a theme of Purcell called Encore, specially commissioned from no less than 20 different composers. How the stylistically disparate contributions dovetailed so well I can’t say; but they did, held together with exuberant energy by Vladimir Jurowski, who conducted.
Song recitals can be just a shopping list of favoured items; but for their programme at Middle Temple Hall soprano Mary Bevan and pianist Julius Drake conjured up an imaginary soirée in the Leipzig home of Robert and Clara Schumann at which the guests (composers who did in fact visit the Schumanns, leaving their names in the visitors’ book) brought some of their own works for entertainment. Berlioz, Liszt and the Mendelssohns (Felix and Fanny) were all on the invitation list – and not every piece they brought was of the first rank. But Mary Bevan sells a song with such conviction that it can pass for more than it is, and the chiselled clarity of Drake’s pianism does the same trick. Between them they silenced any listener’s internal censor, in what was a smart, sharp and surprisingly effective evening.
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