London Sinfonietta

Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters

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The London Sinfonietta has long been associated with driving trends in contemporary music; the recordings it made in the 1970s of the music of Kurt Weill under past conductor David Atherton played a major role in reviving the music of Weill. It was also one of the first ensembles to record Silvestre Revueltas' music in a comprehensive fashion and the musiciains are expert interpreters of minimalist music. In the two-disc set Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters issued on its own label, London Sinfonietta's artistic director Gillian Moore pulls together recordings gleaned from three festival appearances from 2003 and 2004 in order to illustrate a thread of continuum from mostly departed giants of twentieth century avant-garde to the hip, young digital mix masters that populate England's Warp label. That it doesn't work is largely due to the weak and careless performances included of the older works on the program, not so much from a lack of cohesiveness between old and new.

Two major works for percussion ensemble, Edgard Varèse's Ionisation and Cage's First Construction in Metal, are doomed by lackluster, underpowered interpretations. The excerpts from John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes are badly played in most cases, and the piano is badly prepared in all. By contrast, both Steve Reich works (Violin Phase and Six Marimbas) are performed reasonably well, as is Stockhausen's Spiral, although in the last-named instance it appears that this rarely recorded work itself hasn't held up terribly well, coming off as rather clunky and old-fashioned. Yvar Mikhashoff's transcription of Conlon Nancarrow's Study No. 7 is a bright spot in terms of the quality of the performance, but the canny sounding in-concert recording makes it come off closer to the sound of Frank Comstock's music for Rocky and His Friends than to Nancarrow. The Ligeti Chamber Concerto is okay, but probably the least well made.

Easily the most engaging performances are of the so-called Warp Works by Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, realizations of electronic drum 'n bass pieces for chamber ensemble that sound more like a triumph of transcription than that of composition. For some, the London Sinfonietta's efforts might be seen as "pushing the envelope," for others it might be like someone trying to pass off a plastic cup of warm urine as fine champagne. This effect is worsened by the sound quality of the live recordings, which tend to be distant, hissy, and excessively bright with no bottom end. If the London Sinfonietta thinks it can do a better job of making the case for Aphex Twin and Squarepusher being celebrated in the same breath as Varèse and Ligeti, it is welcome to try again, but this is a failure. The obvious remedy would have been to issue an entire single disc of Warp Works transcriptions, rather than stacking the deck by including all of these other pieces. In sum, Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters is both too much and not enough.

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