Britten Sinfonia

Explorations: The Sound of Nonesuch Records at Barbican

barbican2014 marks the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch Records, the American record label whose catalogue embraces jazz, classical, contemporary, folk and world music. You would think such diversity would not lend itself to a coherent festival celebrating the artists that have made Nonesuch a real success—on the contrary, it’s what the Barbican does extremely well. The Barbican’s Explorations: The Sound of Nonesuch Records was a curated weekend of events that showcased the best of what Nonesuch Records have produced in their 50 years. Five concerts took place in LSO St Luke’s, Guildhall School’s new Milton Court Concert Hall and the Barbican Hall. I attended the second in the series on Saturday, May 17, featuring the Kronos Quartet, the pianists Timo Andres and Brad Mehldau, and the innovative Britten Sinfonia.

The Kronos Quartet opened the evening and engaged the listener immediately with Terry Riley’s G Song, the first of three items they presented by Riley. I always think the term ‘minimalism’ can be erroneously applied to Riley as this was far from something repetitive but a rich counterpoint, with passages never returning in the same guise. Kronos are mesmerising and make sense of this music, bringing every nuance in the structure to the fore and each line in this layering of counterpart was balancing with care. Riley has been a frequent collaborator of Kronos (as David Harrington told the audience between the items) and it was good to hear the early work G Song followed by the more recent The Serquent Risadonne. Although still full of Riley’s careful control of longer term structure, the piece featured a broader palette of instrumental timbre. It was One Earth One People One Love (from Sun Rings) that gave their set a beautiful finish. Kronos’ cellist, Sunny Jungin Yang, really sang in this work with her full resonant tone. The haunting ‘One Earth, One People, One Love’ spoken by a female voice (recordings from a NASA Voyager mission) being a frequent interjection in this spacious piece which really drew the audience in. Throughout this set the lighting added much to bring the music alive.

There was something less satisfying about the Steve Reich work that followed, performed by members of Britten Sinfonia. Radio Rewrite (2012) takes two Radiohead songs, Jigsaw Falling into Place and Everything in Its Right Place as it’s starting point. Reich reworks the material for into five movements, alternating fast and slow, and is scored for clarinet, flute, two violins, viola, cello, two vibraphones, two pianos and electric bass. As someone familiar with the work of Christopher O’Riley I had high expectations of how this material could be reimagined, but I was left feeling something was missing. Superbly performed by the Britten Sinfonia and conductor Clark Rundell, with their particularly strong wind playing and despite a momentary blip followed by a restart. The work left me cold, and less keen to engage with the material, but one couldn’t fault the insistent bass line, the pounding pair of pianos and the quintessentially Reich vibraphone timbres.

Timo Andres - Photo by Michael Wilson

Timo Andres – Photo by Michael Wilson

I was, on the other hand, consumed by the opening of Timos Andres’ Paraphrase on themes of Brian Eno: the string glissandi at the start seemed to promise a more sophisticated sound world that never quite materialised. The pianist joined the Britten Sinfonia at the piano to perform this work, which like Reich, is a reworking of material—this time five songs by Eno. I wouldn’t agree with NPR that this was a ‘lovingly orchestrated homage in the time honored spirit of Franz Liszt‘ as there seemed to be little involvement from the piano (certainly from what I heard) and this journey through the Eno songs didn’t travel far but nonetheless there is a sensitive and subtle approach in Andres’ approach that made this an attractive work amidst the Riley and the Reich.

Leading American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau finished the evening with his Variations on a Melancholy Theme. The piano was pushed centre stage and the Britten Sinfonia was at full complement. This was the second European premiere to feature in the concert, the first being Andres’ Paraphrase. Like Andres, Mehldau rarely soared over the Britten Sinfonia but his solo playing was engaging and one could clearly hear the invention synonymous with Mehldau; rich harmonies, and idiomatic piano textures made this an engaging work that really did go on a journey. The Britten Sinfonia excelled again in the passage where the wind solos, particularly flute clarinet and bassoon, took charge. A greater interaction between piano and orchestra would have been welcome for me, as the call and response approach lacked verve. However, Mehldau’s Variations demonstrated real skill and a love of invention that sustained a lengthy work and a fitting close to the evening. What encapsulated the essence of the entire concert were the two encores Mehldau gave to an appreciative audience. Executed with the spirit and energy that imbues so much of Nonesuch Records’s work.