Five fave concerts from 08

With other events dominating this year I didn’t see quite as much live music as last year. A smaller pool may statistically account for why I didn’t see quite as much that really blew me away either, or maybe I was more cynical than in 2007. Anyway, here are five I rated in 08, in chronological order:

Messiaen: Vingt régards sur l’enfant-Jésus. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, QEH, 13 January

The first of several ‘event’ concerts this year. I don’t appear to have any notes from this night, but it was fantastic. I don’t usually care much about performers, more about what they’re playing, but P-LA is an exception. Missing his Vingts régards in London a few years ago was a long-held regret of mine, finally put to rest here.

Nono: Promoteo, RFH, 9 and 10 May

Another major ‘event’. The hype may have threatened to obscure the music, but Nono’s Tragedy of Listening didn’t disappoint. Listening a second time around, in a supposedly less acoustically perfect part of the hall, was a revelation.

What I said then:

Prometeo, which begins strongly with intensely detailed waves of material but raises its game with each movement until the seventh, ‘Three Voices (a)’. This three-layered slab of solo voices, thunderous brass rumbles and a high violin drone that was slowly passed around the auditorium is a shattering experience: and on first encounter a jaw-dropping shock.

Having pushed through the spiritually cleansing rigours of the earlier movements, at this stage I was hearing Nono’s music with an acuity I have rarely experienced. It was as though layers of my received listening habits had been progressively peeled away to expose the raw, subjective core of my listening being. Nono’s musical reward for his listeners who have reached this far is this overwhelming and exhilarating 12-minute blast of sound.

EXAUDI, Shoreditch Church, Spitalfields Festival, 13 June

The smothered intricacy of Evan Johnson’s Colophons still haunts me, as does its startling central gesture. No one else sings Ferneyhough’s Missa brevis (or any Ferneyhough) like EXAUDI; and the juxtaposition of Tudor works by Sheppard and Taverner was absolutely convincing without pandering to lazy new-ageism. Looking back this was both the best programme and most revealing performance I heard all year.

What I said then:

This concert, combining Tudor motets with Anglo-American modernism, was profoundly satisfying not only because of smart and sincere programming, but also because of EXAUDI’s sensitivity to the musical lessons to be learnt from both eras. Their core repertoire of late modernism makes pretty uncompromising demands upon its performers, but the group’s great strength is in not letting standards drop for the apparently easier Renaissance repertory. Mater Christi, the first of two Marian Antiphons by John Taverner that opened the concert, was a beautiful illustration. The control, precision and balance of the 12 voices was remarkable in itself, but most breathtaking were the final bars. Many performances of Renaissance polyphony reveal a series of climaxes rolling into one another, a sort of permanent ecstatic state that cancels out any specific musical structure and leaves the listener in an anonymous state of bliss; EXAUDI, however, kept a tight lid on their dynamics until the very end when a sudden crescendo into the closing cadence made the heart leap into the throat. A thrilling and revelatory moment made possible by technique and interpretative skills honed on avant-garde repertoire.

Tony Conrad, Tate Modern, 14 June

Hugely enjoyable, profoundly troubling, got to do it once. My ears still ring just thinking about it.

What I said then:

Moving around the hall was physically oppressive, especially as you walked in and out of range of the various speakers. The first section, with TC’s shadow (with his hat) looming like a maniac with a drill, was terrifying.Rainforests, glaciers and Xenakis are awesome; Conrad is frightening, like climate change. On my way home I was physically discomfited – not just ringing ears, but ringing skin. I had to wash the sound off me before I could sleep.

Plus Minus, The Warehouse, BMIC Cutting Edge, 23 October

Videos from this concert (which mercifully don’t show the balding pate of yours truly) may be found here.

The last Cutting Edge series run by the BMIC before they are absorbed into the new Sound and Music organisation was high quality stuff (honourable mentions to both Libra Duo and Asamisimasa Duo), but + – just pip it for a) the most consistently interesting programme (including fine pieces by Laurence Crane, Matthew Shlomowitz and Markus Trunk) and b) introducing London to the very strange music of Peter Ablinger.

Last year’s list.

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