Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice - opening concert, 1 October 2007

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Nono - Incontri
Schoenberg - Chamber Symphony no.1, Op.9
Nono - Variazioni canoniche sulla serie dell' op.41 di Arnold Schoenberg
Nono - 'No hay caminos hay que caminar ... Andrej Tarkowskij'

London Sinfonietta
Diego Masson (conductor)

How wonderful for the Southbank Centre to be celebrating Luigi Nono! It is about time someone did, the only other major retrospective of his work in this country of which I am aware having been at Huddersfield in 1995. This series will reach its climax next May with the British premiere of Prometeo, his 'tragedy of listening'. For this concert, we were treated to three varied works, plus a masterpiece from his posthumous father-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg. Proceedings had commenced even before the concert, with a conversation between Christopher Cook and Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, the composer's widow (and Schoenberg's daughter). She provided an informative and at time moving insight into her late husband's beliefs and methods, not least his instruction from Bruno Maderna, who had encouraged him to compare responses compositional problems in composers old and new, for instance Gabrieli and Webern, Ockeghem and Schoenberg. Hermann Scherchen also emerged as a hero of the tale. We also heard a most sympathetic account of the heady days of 1950s Darmstadt, not as some quasi-totalitarian Ministry of Serialist Truth but as a place of openness, experimentation, and - perhaps most interestingly - as a meeting-place for those who had survived the horrors of fascism with the post-war avant garde. Tradition and its development played a much greater role than myths of a 'year zero' have allowed.

The concert began with a few words from the pianist John Constable concerning the recently deceased London Sinfonietta flautist, Sebastian Bell, to whom the concert was dedicated. Berio's brief Autre fois, composed for flute, harp, and clarinet, in memory of Stravinsky, was performed - most beautifully - in Bell's honour.

We then proceeded to the 'encounters' of Nono's 1955 Incontri, for twenty-four instruments. The two independent structures of which Nono wrote, emerged independently of one another, through differentiation of rhythm, melody, harmony, and timbre. And yet they came together too, unable to escape each other, and producing something more through their encounters. Post-Webernian lines and combinations, and extreme dynamic contrasts were well judged by Diego Masson and his expert players, both in terms of individual clarity and a whole that was more than the sum of its parts. This is partly a matter of mathematics - what music is not? - in terms of the ratios between the two structures, but also of development, of sympathy, of a refusal to repeat oneself which Nono shared with Schoenberg. One felt a true sense of musical and political unity, of the hope in social solidarity which Nuria Schoenberg-Nono had already spoken as a hallmark of Nono's oeuvre.

Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony has long been a Sinfonietta speciality. This was a performance which evinced long familiarity with a work that is for these players 'standard repertoire'. The confidence with which the string soloists projected their lines meant that there was no chance of one of this work's greatest pitfalls presenting itself, namely the strings being overshadowed by the piquant wind. (The opposite pitfall tends to occur in the later, inferior version for full orchestra.) In its contrapuntal clarity and the propulsion of its harmonic progression, this was a model performance, expertly guided by Masson. My taste often tends to veer towards Schoenberg performances that emphasise a little more his Romantic inheritance, but the bracing, relentless modernism of this reading afforded an equally valid perspective and, given the circumstances, was perhaps more apt. My sole cavil was that the 'slow movement' did not really emerge as distinctly as it might. If one thinks of the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, whose form Schoenberg's work so closely resembles, one realises what is gained by a stronger sense of four distinct movements within the one-movement sonata form of the whole. The conclusion, however, was duly thrilling, without ever degenerating into a headlong rush, as can often be its fate.

The interval afforded an opportunity to observe the progress of work from Kingston University students on a wall of protest in the foyer, inspired by the final work on the programme. We too were encouraged to offer reactions to the music in the guise of postcards for colouring, which would then be displayed. This certainly contributed to the buzz of the occasion, to a genuine rather than manufactures sense of the excitement of an event - which the beginning of this festival certainly should have been - so different from the often dreary conventionality of more 'mainstream' concerts.

Nono's greatest homage to Schoenberg, his Canonical Variations on a note row from the Ode to Napoleon, received an extremely fine reading. All the virtues of the Incontri performance were once again present, as was a definite sense of narrative progression, of moving towards and then beyond the final variation's statement of the row. Where 'Darmstadt', as we somewhat misleadingly and monolithically have come to call it, has tended to be portrayed as tolerating Schoenberg mostly for having prepared the way for Webern, here we heard an avowedly post-Webernian serialist employing the Webern inheritance - the sighs of instrumental fragments, the constructivist tension between certain intervallic relations - of earlier variations to build up to a more or less explicit tribute to one of Schoenberg's most unambiguously 'political' works. The almost Romantic beauty of the orchestra, albeit never without a necessary astringency - reminded us of Nuria Schoenberg-Nono's conception of Darmstadt as a continuation of European tradition. (Failure of many of the participants thus to root themselves, rather than outright antipathy towards Cage, was why Nono had eventually left, she explained.)

'No hay caminos, hay que caminar ... Andrej Tarkovskij' represented late Nono (1987). Inspired by a mediaeval wall inscription from a Toledo monastery - 'Traveller, there is no pathway, only travelling itself' - this work triumphantly refuted claims that Nono's later work lost its political edge. There was still here the humanist emphasis upon creation and the utopian hope of a better society, no matter what difficulties life and this world might present, which had marked Nono's earliest works. What was new was the spatial experimentation, a product of practices old (consider Gabrieli) and new (think Stockhausen), with additional instrumentalists positioned around and in between the audience, responding to and furthering the 'main' orchestra on the stage. The slow, still Webern-like beauty of so much of this work received the fullest contrasts with the sudden eruptions from beyond. This was an unpredictable procession, for there are no paths, only travelling. The audience was compelled by the extremes of expression to listen more closely, and thus the smallest variations in timbre and pitch registered with the utmost forcefulness: violent and beguiling, the two attributes gaining in intensity through collision with one another (rather like the two structures of Incontri). This was tribute indeed to a truly committed performance from Masson and the London Sinfonietta. Their belief in Nono was truly infectious, in the best sense, and bodes well for the festivities to come.

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