The London Sinfonietta at St John's, Smith Square
The London Sinfonietta at St John's, Smith Square

Any history of contemporary music during the second half of the 20th century needs to have a chapter reserved for the London Sinfonietta. This is not just for all the new works the ensemble commissioned, but also for the particular type of music it has encouraged.

That is becoming clearer as the London Sinfonietta’s 50th anniversary concerts unfold. This latest programme at St John’s, Smith Square, the ensemble’s temporary home while the Queen Elizabeth Hall is being refurbished, was a paradigm of its special character.

All four works — by Xenakis, Colin Matthews, Rihm and Birtwistle — shared the same coruscating, sharp-edged, punchy sound that comes from a small ensemble dominated by wind and brass. Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 pioneered this kind of acerbity at the start of the 20th century. But in the postwar years the idea really took off with the London Sinfonietta — partly to save money with its small forces, partly because composers liked the anti-Romantic sound. The brilliantly talented musicians of the Sinfonietta stepped forward to commission new works and the result was a lot of music that was difficult to play (and, sometimes, difficult to listen to).

It is par for the course in the music of this period that definition of sound is married to intellectual rigour. Xenakis’s Thallein (1984) has both, energised by the composer’s visceral force and occasional echoes of Stravinsky (another whose formative influence lingered right through the 20th century). Matthews’s Contraflow (1992) plays with lighter textures and a mirror-Iike structure, which is cleverly worked. In Rihm’s Chiffre 2 (1983) long passages of near silence are interrupted by fearsome eruptions, opposing forces that try to come to terms with each other.

The best known of the four was Birtwistle’s Silbury Air (1977/2003), and rightly so. As a response to the ancient monument of Silbury Hill, it is not so much atmospheric as a summoning of some prehistoric spiritual force. The music moves in tightly argued blocks, its repetition of rhythms and pitches suggesting at once timelessness and renewal. At around 15 minutes each, none of the four outstayed its welcome. The London Sinfonietta, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, simply owns this music.


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