Beat Furrer is one of the biggest names in the European avant garde, honoured in this London Sinfonietta tribute. Furrer founded Klangforum Wien 25 years ago and is a charismatic conductor, so it was good to hear how the London Sinfonietta responded to him.

Privat
Privat

Highlight of the programme was Nuun (1995-6) almost a classic by contemporary music standards. Scored for two pianos and pairs of other instruments, it's a series of constantly evolving dialogues that repeat and re-form in myriad combinations. Nuun flows like a river in flood, with dizzying whirlpools of sound, often circular, but dominated by a powerful kinetic thrust. The two pianos, played by Rolf Hind and Zubin Kanga, act like a kind of mad dual metronome, shaping rhythyms that disintegrate, reintegrate and re-surface like undercurrents propelling the piece forward. The two clarinets (Mark van der Wiel and Andrew Webster) form a secondary pair of "metronomes", also at opposite sides of the platform, giving underlying coherence to the wild turbulence around them. The high bright B flat clarinet merges with the darkness of contrabass, creating mysterious, delicious confluence. Later a sequence of extremely short-breathed chords opens out, adding clarity. Densely-textured as Nuun is, it's inventive, imaginative and expressive. The recording, on Kairos, is much more vivid than this live performance would suggest, but that's because it's Furrer's own orchestra, Klangform Wien (conducted by Peter Eotvos) for whom Furrer's idiom is second nature. The London Sinfonietta will get there in time.

Before the concert, Furrer spoke about a visit he made to Istanbul where he heard an imam calling the community to prayer. The voice moved from chest to head, creating resonances which could carry over space. The result was Xenos (2008) which has since inspired Xenos II (2009) and Xenos III (2010). Long, firm brass chords call out confidently, replaced by gentler woodwinds. Again, the idea of dialogue and communication. Particularly striking, though, was the extended quiet section, where chords seem to oscillate in relative silence. Also interesting was the use of accordion (Ian Watson), bringing in an altogether unexpected but apposite element. Xenos feels like sublimated voice. Towards the end, the piece dissipates gently, in low murmurs like the sound of breathing.

In Presto (1997) Furrer's ideas are distilled in pure form. Flute (Michael Cox) and piano (John Constable) do not duet. Gradually the piano's metallic dissonances are moderated by the flute, which gradually leads the piano towards a gentler, more harmonic resolution. Constable and Cox were extremely good. The whole concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3/s "Hear and Now" on 12th March. Listen specially for this version of Presto.

Part of the London Sinfonietta's mission is to promote music as a living art. Hence the Blue Touch Paper project, where young composers are mentored by more experienced composers. Beat Furrer worked with Naomi Pinnock, whose pedigree is impressive. She's also worked with Wolfgang Rihm, Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Jarrell and Olga Neuwirth. Her Words (2010) received its premiere in this concert. It's based on a string of words which don't fit grammatic logic but convey impressionistic meaning. Pinnock further breaks the words down so the listener can deduce deeper meaning from the combination of instrumental sound and word fragments. Pinnock has learned a lot from Furrer, whose opera Begehren communicates the Orpheus myth through snatches of oblique poetry, expressed through the orchestra as well as by voice, communicating to the psyche as well as through the conscious mind. Pinnock creates some interesting effects, The humming clarinets are very effective, as is the accordion. The cimbalom (Chris Bardley) adds an otherworldy presence. Pinnock wrote the piece around Omar Ebrahim's voice, which is amazingly agile and expressive, even when what he sings is so condensed that the text is submerged.