London Sinfonietta: Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters

Though pieces by Aphex Twin and Squarepusher might draw Warp devotees towards the London Sinfonietta's Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters, the recorded spotlight shines mostly on the title's second half. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Warp's two-disc set offers a graduate level class in late-20 th century classical listening. What surprises is the material's generally accessible character, despite being authored by avant-garde pioneers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Edgard Varèse.

Aphex Twin's two prepared piano pieces work nicely as concert openers (the discs contain material recorded at the Royal Festival Hall in 2003 and from a 2004 Contemporary Music Network tour); in true Cage spirit, chains draped across the piano's strings imbue the sound with a metallic character that can't conceal the fundamental prettiness of the songs' melodies. With four short pieces spread over the two discs, Cage presides over the entire collection; doctored piano treatments in his five Sonatas render them natural antecedents to the Aphex pieces while First Construction in Metal exudes strong Gamelan flavour. ‘Metallic' in spirit too is Varèse's Ionization, a short but colourful piece scored for 13 percussionists. Infamous ‘player-piano' composer Conlon Nancarrow is represented by the playful roller-coaster ride Study No. 7 in an arrangement (by Yvar Mikhashoff) that would naturally complement Stravinsky's Petrouchka on another programme. Steve Reich's Violin Phase and Six Marimbas are flattering showcases for his classic phase-shifting style and offer appealing contrast to the other composers' works.

Stockhausen's Spiral, which asks that musician use a shortwave radio to “tune into sounds from beyond the stars,” sounds suitably cosmic but not off-puttingly so, especially with its heavy woodwinds focus. At times, they sound like they're being played underwater while, elsewhere, saxophone clusters flutter against smeared waves of radio transmissions. Still, in this already-packed context, the 20-minute piece sounds about double its ideal length. György Ligeti's Chamber Concerto similarly tries the patience of some concert-goers judging by the excessive coughing that's audible during its quieter passages—a shame, given the work's remarkable craft and orchestration. Rest assured no one nodded off during Aphex's raucous crowd-pleaser “Polygon Window.” “AFX237 V7” (Drukqs) and Squarepusher's “The Tide” (Budakhan Mindphone) and “Conc 2 Symmetriac” (Do You Know Squarepusher) hardly sound out of place either, especially when heard in rich arrangements by David Horne and Fraser Trainer & Sound Intermedia.

October 2006