Created in 1928, the Singer-Polignac Foundation takes its name from Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, the philanthropist and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. Composers including Stravinsky, Fauré, Debussy, Tailleferre and de Falla were all supported by the Princess’s generous patronage, regularly premiering chamber works at her family’s busy Paris salon. Nadia Boulanger organised the first Festival Singer-Polignac concerts in the Polignacs' music room, succeeded by Jean Françaix after her death; the Festival’s championing of new, exploratory chamber music continues to this day.

Trio Xenakis

A glance over the Festival programme sees giants of the repertoire meet head on. Ligeti’s Wind Quintet and the Poulenc Sextet, Beethoven’s String Quartet no.11 and George Crumb’s Black Angels, all colliding (sometimes on the same evening). It’s a feast for the ears, and a remarkably committed bit of programming.

Where other gigs balance the old, new and reimagined, the Trio Xenakis concert took a more stridently modern aim. The ensemble (Adélaïde Ferrière, Emmanuel Jacquet and Rodolphe Théry) are a contemporary percussion trio named after one of the first composers to properly explore the possibilities of these forces. They have been Festival residents since 2018, and this programme saw them take in some classics of the repertoire alongside some hidden gems.

Spotlights, smoke machines and huge, bulbous chandeliers set in the gothic surrounds of the Polignac mansion made it feel more like a Prince gig rather than a contemporary music concert. But in a livestream without a live audience and equipped with the incentive to make a spectacle, the presentation certainly betters some of the more sterile offerings from the past year. Proceedings had a genuine excitement to them, a difficult thing to achieve without the buzz of an audience in the room.

Few pieces in the repertoire require three percussionists all together, so you regularly see Trio Xenakis split up. This was the case for the concert opener  – Pieces for four timpani by Elliott Carter. It’s not Carter at his strongest, but Rodolphe Théry coaxed as much theatricality out of it as he could, nimbly tossing beaters mid-flow as required to realise Carter’s nuanced (if at times imperceptible) changes in timbre.

Théo Fouchenneret, Jonas Vitaud and Trio Xenakis

Nagoya Marimbas is Steve Reich in a hurry. If the piece had been written twenty years earlier, it could quite easily have been double its length. Instead, the detailed duo canon is all over in five minutes, returning to the phasing technique of previous years. It’s Reich at his most energetic too, and this exercise was a workout executed excellently by the duo of Ferrière and Jacquet.

Where Reich’s canons are insistently foggy (constantly repeating themselves in a way that smudges the rest of the material), it’s hard to find a bigger musical juxtaposition than in the stark lines of Japanese-born French composer Yoshihisa Taïra. The framing unisons of his Trichromie saw the trio come together for the only time in the concert, continuing the evening’s focused drama through their meticulous gestures. Rows of snares and toms mean the work is effectively “staged” – it’s an impactful piece that needs more champions.

There are few classics of this genre, but Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion comes close. Joined by two pianists (Théo Fouchenneret and Jonas Vitaud both played excellently) and aided by two masked vigilante page-turners, this was a delight, showcasing Bartók at his most playful in the most distanced quartet imaginable – it’s as if Bartók composed this piece with social distancing in mind. The festival is live until the 29th May – a must-watch.

This concert was reviewed from the Festival Singer-Polignac stream.