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All sorts of new music are picked up by the London music colleges before professionals such as the London Sinfonietta get hold of them. The colleges have nothing to lose; their excellent students gain experience in what are sometimes new and unfamiliar techniques, their audiences, who come free or pay very modest prices, can discover interesting things, and probably the most regular attenders are musically inclined pensioners from London SW1, SW3 and SW5 – rather a broad-minded group, willing to take new things on board. Many a composer can be happy to have his or her latest works heard and appreciated by such a seasoned crowd.
The Stuttgart composer Helmut Lachenmann, who turns 71 this week, has been the latest beneficiary of the RCM’s attention, with recitals, concerts and master-classes at the College, directly behind the Albert Hall. Lachenmann is far better known (though not in France) on the Continent, where middle-of-the-contemporary-road music like his draws more sympathetic audiences than in London, where our chief purveyors of new works – the Sinfonietta and the BBC – prefer more radical stuff (although our great Arditti Quartet covers a wider range in its expansive repertoire, including Lachenmann). The RCM has just devoted several days of concerts to him, and I heard their excellent student orchestra, most of them destined for orchestral careers, expounding his big Ausklang from 1985 and his much earlier Kontrakadenz for smaller, tighter groups of instruments. Pierre-André Valade was a scrupulous conductor, as always.
Ausklang (1985) is a sound-canvas that lasts almost an unbroken hour, Mahler-length and also Mahlerian in character.With a piano-part (elegantly articulated by Noriko Kawai) at its centre, the music swerves off into small-group studies of individual paragraphs, often overlapping and fruitfully contrasted: rich and fascinating to hear, always lucid.
As for Kontrakadenz, Lachenmann’s programme-note explained: “That which resounds does not resound for the sake of its tonality and structural modification, but signals the actual use of energies in the musicians’ actions, and renders the mechanical conditions and instances of resistance associated with these actions tangible, hearable and anticipatable.”
Well, yes. In simpler terms, the music of Kontrakadenz doesn’t “develop”, but consists of many short sections with which the musicians play pat-a-cake in simultaneous duos and small groups. Fun to hear, easy to follow, impeccably musical. Now, what has Lachenmann been doing more recently?