The London Sinfonietta in Beijing's Forbidden City

The London Sinfonietta in Beijing's Forbidden City

Debussy, Tansy Davies, Adès, Chou Wen Chung, Penderecki, Messiaen. Members of the London Sinfonietta, with Runfeng Lin (violin). Forbidden City Concert Hall, Beijing, China, 09.10.2023

Debussy Syrinx  

Tansy Davies Grind Show (unplugged)  

Adès Court Studies 

Chou Wen Chung String Quartet No. 2, ‘Zhauhun’: first movement 

Penderecki Clarinet Quintet 

‘encore’: Kreisler Recitativo and Scherzo, Op. 6 (Lin) 

Messiaen Quatuor pour le fin du temps 

Members of the London Sinfonietta returned to the Beijing Music Festival this year with a programme entitled ‘Contemporary Classics’. The BMF has been a major musical force in China for some time now, and this was one of several concerts I was lucky enough to attend as part of the 25th/26th festival (combined due to covid). Beijing’s Forbidden City Concert Hall is a magnificent acoustic space, and this well-chosen programme showed off the strengths of members of the London Sinfonietta (who had also been performing Daisy Evans’ spectacularly emotional reframing of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in Stephen Higgins’ arrangement at the Beijing Comedy Theatre). They were joined for a performance of a solo violin piece by Fritz Kreisler by Runfeng Lin as a surprise ‘encore’ (although Lin was credited in the programme, the piece was not …). 

It was Karen Jones who provided the beautifully atmospheric performance of Debussy’s famous solo flute work, Syrinx. The performance began hauntingly, with Jones off-stage, a truly lovely account, Jones’ tone quite breathy as she made her way to centre stage. 

Inspired by Goya’s The Pilgrimage of St Isidore, Tansy Davies’ Grind Show moves the scene to a superimposition of dance hall against a rainy landscape. The ensemble of flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello moves in a disjunct dance: disjunct, yet one that made perfect sense in this performance. In fact, performance by all players was exceptional; perhaps Adrian Bradbury’s cello deserves special comment. Here’s a performance from LSO St Luke's, by the Azalea Ensemble under Christopher Austin:

Thomas Adès' Court Studies are extracted from his opera The Tempest. They are a sequence of solos for members of the Neapolitan Court. Scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, they offer Adès at his best: light, sophisticated (particularly rhythmically) yet, here, somewhat humorous. It felt like the perfect partner for the Davies, with both composers illuminating the other. Adès' demands on his players are just as harsh as Davies', but different. The Sinfonetta players perfectly captures the scurrying, quixotic nature of the opening as easily as they melted the heartin the silvery, sustained writing. Effortless beauty from both players and composer. Sustaining the later chordal section is similarly challenging, and perfectly done here. Mark van der Wiel’s clarinet playing was as meltingly beautiful as ever. Here is a performance from the Kofiko Ensemble, relevant as it was recorded at London's Fidelio Café (the subject of a post coming up in a day or so):

Chou Wen Chung’s String Quartet No. 2, ‘Zhaohun’’ utilises the I Ching in its permutations and superimpositions. It really is a remarkable work, expressive and yet uncompromising in its modernity. Dating from 2003, the full quartet is subtitled, ‘Streams’ in response to the ebb and flow of lines (it is inspried by Bach’s Art of Fugue) and was commissioned by the Brentano Quartet. The title of the second movement, ‘Zhaohun,’ refers to an ancient poetic form and literally means ‘calling the spirit of the deceased’. The composer himself says he finds that this movement reminds him of “the polyphonic singing of villagers from an isolated locality in Soutwest China that I heard some years ago, which employed flexible but complicated imitationthat is remarkably in spirit with that of this elegy.” Based on a canon of two pairs, the strands represent yin and yang forms of fugal writing. This is haunting music, the expressive lines almost Bergian at times. There are lovely moments: a violin with viola ‘echo’ (*Stephen Bryant and Paul Silverthorne, respectively). Glissandos make it sound like the music itself is elastic and being pulled out of shape. Chung has a phenomenal ear for sonority and for melodic manipulations. The piece, too, is very skilfully constructed; as are the very simultaneities we hear in the chordal constructions. My one regret is that we did not get to hear the entire piece; but we can rectify that here. Here's the quartet originally associated with the work, the Brentano Quartet, in a YouTube video with rolling score:

00:30 - I. Introduction & Fugue (Contrapunctus Variabilis I) 05:47 - II. Zhaohun (Contrapunctus Variabilis II) 09:59 - III. Canonic Perpetual Motion (Contrapunctus Variabilis III) 11:42 - IV. Episodes & Coda (Contrapunctus Variabilis IV)

Almost finally for the first half, Penderecki’s Clarinet Quartet. From lop-sided dance to the most expressive to the sheer sonic beauty of the opening ‘Notturno,’ this was a performance for the ages. Mark van der Wiel’s playing is known to be so expressive – his work at the Philharmonia precedes him – and how poignant was the clarinet and viola (Silverthorne) duet here. The Scherzo pulsed with energy, the octaves so quick, so together, so in tune, the third movement ’Serenade’ suave and, at limes, almost comedic. Penderecki morphs from that to the most ravishing harmonies. A word for Stephen Bryant’s brilliant contributions here, too. It was the final elegy that was so touching, though, music of the heart which went straight to the heart. A powerful, inforgettable account. 

So to the interval – or so I thought. Before tea, though, a solo by guest violinist Ruifeng Lin, a semi-programmed encore (we knew he was coming, but knew not what he was to do): Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo, Op. 6, performed with panache, a deep, rich tone and a real awareness of gesture,  

After the interval, Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin du temps (Quartet for the end of time). Perhaps this should have been performed at Beijing’s lovely Temple of Heaven, as that is to the Elysian Fields that we were transported. Each solo movement was beyond criticism, with Bryant’s violin a particular highlight. Van der Wiel’s lyrical way with the melodic lines of the opening ‘Liturgie du crystal’ set the tone perfectly. If the ‘Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps’ felt just slightly under-powered, it was van der Wiel’s ‘Abîme des opiseaux' (Abyss of birds) that brought the spell into play again, beautifully moulded, with pianissimi close to unaudible. This, surely, is the proper defiinition of a virtuoso; it lies in the sheer control over the instrument, not in the super-velocities. 

How disciplined were the players in the ‘Intermède,' a dance (danse) that ended in pure ecstasy, its gestures beautifully rendered (and what wit to Bradbury’s pizzicato). It was Bradbury’s cello that sang over Ciodna Shanahan’s piano in the ‘Louange à l'éternité de Jésus,' a maximal contrast to the quasi-barbarous ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trimpettes' (Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets). It was fascinating to hear how, in perfect unison, the line was coloured by the individual instrumental timbres. And while Bradbury again excelled in the penultimate movement (“Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce le fin du temps”), it was Bryant and Shanahan’s account of the final “Louange à l'eternité de Jésus” that was truly a transfiguring experience, the beauty of Bryant’s tone only matched by the purity of his tone as the music ascended to the violins’ higher registers. 

A fascinating concert in a beautiful venue.