London Sinfonietta/Sheen review – ghostly microtones and heartbeat rhythms

The London Sinfonietta’s last Southbank Centre programme of the year was bookended by works it had freshly commissioned, from Jack Sheen, who also conducted the concert, and from the Latvian composer Justė Janulytė. Sheen opened with his own Phant Heap Render, three short movements of ghostly string repetitions and sustained notes from the wind that gradually sink in pitch, against a harmonic background blurred by microtones. It creates music that moves slowly on the surface, while internally seeming busy.

Where Sheen’s textures are sparse and fragile, Janulytė’s Sleeping Patterns presents a dense, constantly changing musical flux. Much of her output consists of pieces for monochrome collections of instruments, so writing for the multicoloured lineup of the Sinfonietta and their co-commissioners, Ensemble Intercontemporain and Remix Ensemble, offered her a new challenge.

As the title suggests, Sleeping Patterns is inspired by the different rhythms of a human body – breathing, heartbeat, eye movements, etc – which operate simultaneously but are unsynchronised. Janulytė mirrors these in her use of musical patterns in seven different tempi that weave through the ensemble. They create an intense and compelling micropolyphony, a kaleidoscope of instrumental colour and shifting perspectives.

Nothing else in the programme, though, was as absorbing as these new pieces. Älv Alv Alva by Lisa Streich – composer-in-residence at the Huddersfield contemporary music festival last month, where the Sinfonietta first performed this programme – was a curious mixture of the serious and the twee, with folksy, Greig-like riffs interrupting its sustained spectral harmonies. Tyshawn Sorey’s For Olly Woodrow Wilson, Jr was a memorial piece that stretched some unmemorable musical material over an unnecessarily extended timeframe.

But the nearest to a contemporary classic in the programme, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Da un Divertimento, at least had historical interest. It’s very early Sciarrino, composed in 1970 when he was just 23, but the originator of the wispy, weightless textures, combining pitched and unpitched sounds, is instantly identifiable.