London Sinfonietta

Castiglioni, Salonen and Milstein

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 12 June 2008 4 stars

Nicolo CastiglioniEntering the Queen Elizabeth Hall on an evening radiating light by the Thames, we enter the dark and luminous passage of the post-serialist inscription of music – this music's emerging out of silence to recede back into it, its casting its forms allowing us to chart the historical span of its outflow and works.

This concert by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen, afforded listeners a rare chance to hear the music of Niccolò Castiglioni in performance.

Castiglioni (1932-1996) was an Italian composer of the same generation as Donatoni, Nono, Clementi and Berio, who, like these, shared a presence in the moment of the 1950s Darmstadt avant-garde and its Webern-inspired exploration of music's limits in its parameters. Each composer found his own solutions to this problem of musical form, one which still imposes itself on composition. The evening's programme apart from Castiglioni was completed by two new works by Esa-Pekka Salonen (a UK premiere) and Silvina Milstein (a world premiere), bookending either side of the interval, each quite different from the rest on the programme and each formulating different responses to the exigency of music's composition.

Those works of Castiglioni performed tonight by the Sinfonietta span from his early mature compositions of the 1950's to late work from the 1980's. The first two pieces performed, Inizio di movimento (Start of a Movement, 1958) and Movimento continuato (A Movement Continued, 1958-9), are made up of common material: the second piece, for ensemble and piano, incorporates the material of the first solo piano piece towards a different acoustic end. Tonight's pianist, Sarah Nicolls (who has recently had a large part in promoting the work of Castiglioni in the UK), takes her position at the piano as the lights in the hall drop to leave a single spotlight on her and the instrument. A similar process becomes of the sound in the hall, as we await in silence the night's music to emerge. The sounding of the first notes from the piano announces to us the characteristic integral-serialist sound-space. Nicolls plays and communicates this music brilliantly, appearing entranced in the music while guiding the audience into it; she barely looks to her score throughout the piece. This is music from a different era, and as such sets us down within its own time. The piece opens sparsely, with sudden transient changes of dynamic, and describes over its duration a movement towards the piano's upper register. Nicolls' sure touch fills the hall with a pencil-thin percussive hammering which resounds in the space that hosts it. The lights go up on the players, and Movimento continuato begins with a reiteration of the beginning of Inizio. At the high passage this time the flute and clarinet insist themselves, leading the way for the rest of the ensemble, which gradually enter and throw colour on the piano. The sound-world is rich, reminiscent to this listener of Donatoni, not at all as austere as its serial genesis may suggest. After a virtuosic display by Nicolls the piece ends in the bass of the piano, with Nicolls putting her hand inside the piano to hush the note struck.

KnussenThe next piece on the programme is also by Castiglioni: Tropi (1959), for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. Its opening is abrupt, with a fast atonal polyphonic burst, just as abruptly stopping and opening onto silence. This framing use of silence attests to Webern's influence, and the interchange of passages of loud, virtuosic atonality with ones of mute sparseness characterises the piece. Esa-Pekka Salonen's Catch and Release closes the first half of the concert. After breathing within the space of Castiglioni's crystalline, graceful and considered sounds, Salonen's piece displays itself as by turns garish and rude; while equally considered in its construction, it is less convincing in effect. The piece is scored for the ensemble of Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat, and begins with a syncopated martial air of drums and brass, the accentuations of the rhythm foregrounded by the monotone of the harmony. The piece then unfolds as a quasi-tonal/-octatonic work that gives the impression of its ensemble having been especially designed for such a monotonous end; the compositional craft is undeniable, the result insipid and uninspired, although performed brilliantly as usual by the Sinfonietta, who are a pleasure to watch.

The second half of the programme begins with the world premiere of surrounded by distance by Argentinean-born UK-based composer Silvina Milstein (a work that was commissioned by ACE Study Tours). In her pre-concert talk with Nicolls, Milstein had spoken of her composition as one that would require its audience to be open to wherever it took them, to enter into the space in which its images emerge and allow its experience to come into the mind. With an ensemble expanded from the first half of the concert, the piece opens with a single harp note plucked aloud, emanating into ripples in the stings, which react with an atonal wash that is continued, by and large, for the rest of the piece. The result is a colourful monotony which, although appearing meticulously crafted, is without any tangible form or sense of direction. The percussive presence is large, a familiar colouring device for music in the post-serial idiom wherein the formal presence of any distinction between consonance and dissonance has been abated. The frequent changes of tempo ushered in by Knussen are similarly imperceptible, lost in the featureless forest of sound, and silence does not appear anywhere.

The remainder of the concert returns to Castiglioni, the concert finishing with two later pieces by the Italian composer to complete the portrait we receive of him tonight. These are later works, and for larger ensemble. The first, Risognanze for 16 players, is reminiscent of Kurtag in its fragmented form and its solemn, dream-like understatement, and of Ligeti in the flights of bizarreness which occasionally interpose themselves. These features continue into the last piece, Quodlibet, for piano and small orchestra, a sort of concerto, for which Sarah Nicolls returns to the stage. Nicolls has been outstanding over the night and her welcome return completes the concert's panoramic circuit. Those interested in this music and in Nicolls would be encouraged to seek out her 2005 recording on Metier of Castiglioni's piano music.

By Liam Cagney