Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Sheldon/Kanga - Berg, Schoenberg, Sdraulig, and Lachenmann, 6 October 2015

Performance Space, City University 

Berg – Piano Sonata, op.1
Schoenberg – Das Buch der hängenden Garten, op.15
Charlie Sdraulig – collector (world premiere)
Lachenmann – Got Lost

Jane Sheldon (soprano)
Zubin Kanga (piano)

This was the first of City University’s free evening recitals I had attended, but I doubt it will be the last. Performances of the Schoenberg and Lachenmann works would drag me considerably further than Islington, and they received fine performances indeed. Added to that, a world premiere and a well-loved apprentice work by one of the most well-loved of all twentieth-century composers, there was much to enjoy.

Berg’s early Piano Sonata received a forthright performance from the London-based Australian pianist, Zubin Kanga. It had direction, clarity, perhaps a little less in the way of labyrinthine mystery, but that might also have been a matter of the excellent acoustic of the Music Department’s Performance Space. Even before hearing Schoenberg, Berg’s music sounded here a little more backward-looking, harmonies and their progressions more redolent of Zemlinsky, perhaps, than of the Second Viennese School proper. Perhaps some at least of Berg’s early songs are more fully achieved in themselves. Still, it made an interesting choice as a point of departure.

One of the finest twentieth-century song-cycles, Das Buch der hängenden Garten languishes for the most part strangely unperformed. Quite why is anyone’s guess; one would have thought singers and pianists would be queuing up to perform such a masterpiece. But then, one thinks of Erwartung, a work with which it has much in common, and its comparative neglect too… One obvious difference between those two works is, of course, that Das Buch der hängenden Garten is made up of fifteen ‘individual’ songs, however greater the whole than the sum of its parts. A signal virtue of this performance was the way Kanga and Jane Sheldon emphasised that whole, without neglecting semi-individual character to the parts. Indeed, there was something highly musico-dramatic, in a post-Wagnerian sense Schoenberg surely intended, to the laying out of different options, be they harmonic, rhythmic, different forms of vocal production, etc., and tying them together through motivic interaction. From Sheldon, we heard hushed tones that were hushed, purple, quasi-onomatopoeic, and much more; we heard something closer to speech and we heard snatches of operatic vocalism. Above all, we heard what bound them together, both from her and from Kanga’s alert, often rich-toned pianism. The final song proved a climax in every respect. I only wished we could have heard another performance straight away, or perhaps after the interval.

Instead, though, we heard the first performance of Charlie Sdraulig’s collector, for solo piano. In his brief note, Kanga quoted the composer as having described the work, his first for solo piano, as ‘an individual in a physical environment; an individual re-enacting an exploratory process, staged in pre-defined territories; an individual performing a choreography; an individual’s touch mediated by their listening.’ That all made a certain degree of sense during the performance, but I am afraid I found the tapping of the surface of the keys wore thin rather quickly. Occasional notes were ‘played’, as we should normally understand, and there was certainly an entertaining element of performance art to what we saw and, to an extent, to what we heard too. Perhaps, though, I was just not on the right wave-length.

Not that I have any problem with extended techniques as such, with re-examination of the capabilities of an instrument, with deconstruction and reconstruction of what it does and might do. But Lachenmann’s 2009 Got Lost had all, and more of, the elements of performance art whilst impressing in a very ‘traditional’ way too. In this performance from Sheldon and Kanga, again both excellent, I really gained a sense of the parallels, perhaps even dialectical relationship, between the composer’s deconstruction of his initial texts – Nietzsche, Fernando Pessoa, and a notice concerning the loss of laundry (!) – and some of his musical procedures too. That was probably more intuitive than considered, but listening and indeed performing experience can be mediated in more than one way at different times. Many of the virtues of the Schoenberg performance, not least the array of expression, were apparent once again, renewed, reinvigorated, in a new yet perhaps related context. Expression struck me as something to be considered both in a quasi-Romantic sense and something I might be old-fashioned enough still to call avant-gardist: insofar, of course, as the two are not the same thing, as well as similar. There could be no gainsaying the virtuosity of the performers, but it always seemed focused upon the work and the possibilities it offered. I was reminded of a tribute by Lachenmann to Nono, his teacher, in which the former recalled approvingly the ‘irritation’ experienced by erstwhile colleagues such as Stockhausen at Nono’s having taken up and, yes, preserved ‘the traditional “big” expressive tone, the gesture full of pathos, lyricism, drama and emotion such as has been handed down from Monteverdi, Beethoven or Schoenberg.’

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