Quantum mechanics and avant-garde music both have in common a pretty steep learning curve. So it shows considerable character from the London Sinfonietta, 50 this year, to take both on in an evening of music and experiments at Kings Place (part of the latter’s Time Unwrapped series). The evening had two parts: a lecture and demonstration from Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy Malcolm Longair, a Cambridge physicist who played his part as ruffled don to perfection, and then music from pianist Rolf Hind, soprano Elizabeth Atherton and players of the London Sinfonietta. Webern, Berg, Schoenberg, Debussy and Cowell were on the programme, their pieces roughly contemporaneous with the remarkable decade in which Albert Einstein wrote his papers on special and general relativity, 1905-1910. 

Elizabeth Atherton © Kiran Ridley
Elizabeth Atherton
© Kiran Ridley

We were there to learn about (musical) spacetime. I could probably understand about thirty percent of what Prof. Longair was talking about when it came to the physics, but this wasn’t really the point: he and his assistant ran experiments using lasers and demonstrated the nature of Einstein’s (and others’) insights using mirrors and lenses that distorted and bent images of galaxies and stars. You could do all this as a programme note, I suppose, but where would the fun be in that? And there was a more serious payoff to this as well: the experiments – we were told to clap louder if they went wrong – helped to drive home a feeling that the music we would hear after the interval had a contingent, risky character too, adventures in the musically thinkable whose meaning might only be glimpsed obliquely. 

Anton Webern’s Drei Lieder are masterpieces of compression, presaging in their brevity the stringent, crystalline music of gesture manifested in his later serialist works. Here we could hear these same dramatic gestures, though embedded in the lusher and richer sonorities of late Romanticism, albeit in brief. Elizabeth Atherton gave us an Isolde in miniature, singing with clarity of diction and immediacy that meant nothing was wasted. 

This was followed by equally, well, rapturous singing in Schoenberg’s setting of Stefan Georg’s Entrückung (“Rapture”), that concludes his Second String Quartet. “Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten”, the soprano sings, as the strings hold a high, gently shimmering chord: I feel the air from another planet. The principal strings of the London Sinfonietta provided enough bite and sparkle to set the scene for this blast of cosmic poetry, floating through the upper registers of their instruments, pulling us free of conventional harmony’s gravitational force into a new musical universe.  

They switched down to gritty and unsentimental Stravinsky in his Three pieces for string quartet, whose parallel lines and collage-like blocks of sound were delivered with requisite spareness. This was good programming, in which the mood constantly shifted: Stravinsky was preceded by the Expressionist intensity and keening virtuosity of Alban Berg’s Four pieces for clarinet and piano, which featured some impressive flutter-tonguing. 

We also heard music from another contemporary of Stravinsky et al., the American composer Henry Cowell, born on the cusp of 20th century in 1897. Banshee and Aeolian Harp took the piano to mysterious and resonant extremes. Rolf Hind leaned over and reached under the lid, plucking, stroking, and strumming, with the occasional assistance of a valiant page turner. We floated a haze of harmonics and overtones, long and short strokes, a half-remembered dream of the resonances of the Debussy piano prelude he’d played a few minutes before with balletic control. Not piano as percussion exactly, the sort we might associate with John Cage and Pierre Boulez, but the piano as a medium for a kind of metallic rapture and terror. Both pieces were dramatic and still in equal measure, making for an enchanting feeling out of the edges of the pianistically possible. 

Tom Service, MC-ing the evening, has an infectious cleverness and boundless enthusiasm for music and ideas that sweeps all before it. He found an apt counterpart in Schoenberg’s Op.9 Chamber Symphony no. 1, a piece whose twenty-minute duration bursts forth with restless and searching musical ideas, never settling, always developing and rarely slowing (except in the exquisite langsam interlude). Webern’s arrangement scores it for flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello, a distinctive ensemble whose unevenness (clarinet and violin make for a slightly harsh and unreconciled textural partnership in chamber music, evocative of Pierrot Lunaire) makes the piece sound all the more modern. Webern’s use of the flute does call for a transparency and restraint that mitigates against the lushness and excess of the music, and we lost some of the more striking aspects of Webern’s take on the piece in the warm acoustic of Kings Place. But the overall effect was sensational, fast-moving, vibrating, electric. 

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