Thursday, 1 November 2007

Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice - Maurizio Pollini et al., 31 October 2007

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Schoenberg – Three Piano Pieces, Op.11
Schoenberg – Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19
Berg – Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op.5
Nono – …sofferte onde serene …
Nono – ‘Djamila Boupacha,’ for solo voice, from Canti di vita e d’amore
Nono – A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
André Richard, Reinhold Braig (sound projection)
Alain Damiens (clarinet)
Cologne Percussion Quartet
Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts Freiburg
Sara Ecoli, Terence Roe, and Margot Nies (voci recitante)
Beat Furrer (conductor)

This concert represented an encounter, and a most fruitful one, between two of the South Bank Centre’s series: the International Piano Series and the Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice festival. At its heart, even when not performing, was Maurizio Pollini, one of Nono’s closest friends and the dedicatee of Nono’s only work for solo piano (and tape): …sofferte onde serene ....

Pollini’s prowess in the solo piano music of Schoenberg is well known, but that is no reason to take it for granted. As has often been the case in comparing his live performances with recordings, there was arguably a greater freedom in the two sets of pieces performed, albeit with no loss to the awe-inspiring crystalline perfection of his tone and projection. There was perhaps a more ‘Romantic’ sound here than in his Deutsche Grammophon recordings: more Brahms and less Bauhaus, one might say. One of the greatest strengths in both the Op.11 and Op.19 sets was the marriage – dialectic even – between the characteristics of individual pieces and their position within their respective works as a whole. The violent eruptions of Op.11 no.3 are mightily impressive as they are, but gain in power through the spinning of a longer line, which is revealed to be just as narrative in its conception – and execution – as more overtly programmatic works such as the Music to an Imaginary Film Scene or even the Piano Concerto. Pollini’s reserves of tone colour and their deployment, and his articulation of counterpoint without the slightest loss to harmonic richness and motion were an object lesson to any pianist or indeed to any musician.

The Berg Op.4 Pieces received an equally commanding performance from Pollini. I have never heard the final bars sound so richly and darkly expressive, bringing the work closer than usual to the Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.6. Alain Damiens certainly had the measure of his music, bringing a broad array of dynamic contrast, and matching Pollini in the difficult combination of rhythmic precision and flexibility that lies at the heart of such music. I did not feel that Damiens always evinced the most beguiling of tones; sometimes the tonal quality was somewhat breathy. This, however, was a minor blemish.

In …sofferte onde serene …, the ‘serenity’ and ‘suffering’ of Nono’s ‘waves’ was almost visually palpable. There could be no doubt as to the presence of Venice, what Nono called the ‘signals of life on the Laguna’ in this masterly rendition. The tolling of bells, as he would have heard in the Giudecca, seemed to follow on from the ethereal funeral bells of the last of Schoenberg’s Op.19 Pieces. Air from other planets once again came upon us. The interaction with, or rather amplification from, the pianist (Pollini himself) on tape seemed superbly judged, for which much credit must go to André Richard. Sometimes these waves of sound were indistinguishable from those emanating from the piano; sometimes the distinction was clearer. This contrast, of separation and coming together, is integral to the work, and heightened the sense of synergy between the human, the electronic, and the ‘natural’, apparent or otherwise. The sense of developing memory, just as in Schoenberg’s Op.19 no.6 tribute to Mahler, was all-pervasive, in a fitting tribute from Pollini to Nono.

The second half brought us first of all the second of Nono’s Canti di vita e d’amore. Barbara Hannigan’s performance of ‘Djamila Boupacha’ was extremely powerful, both in its sense of drama and in the singer’s astonishing surmounting of the song’s technical challenges. The sense of hope, of ‘love … as consciousness of life,’ to quote Nono, won through over the almost unthinkable blackness of colonial oppression in Algeria. The words were not merely set to music, but became music, a triumph for both Nono and Hannigan.

This triumph was also achieved in the final work, long advocated by Pollini: A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida. The performance, under Beat Furrer, seemed to me exemplary. All participants imparted a true sense of commitment to the work and to its imperative of anti-imperialist struggle. Hannigan once again impressed mightily in her powerful yet acutely sensitive delivery of the soprano line. The three reciting voices added greatly to the sense, as palpable here as in ‘Djamila Boupacha’, of turning the words into music. The horror of partially heard words from the magnetic tape text, The Appeal of the American Committee for the Suspension of the Vietnam War, was superbly projected to provide the work’s subtext, sometimes in the background, other times more clearly heard. This rendered the ‘live’ vocal lines all the more piercing in their protest: human interventions into the darkness of an administered world. The same could be said of the interventions of the exemplary Cologne percussionists, visual as well as aural, , putting me in mind of the horrendous anvils of Wagner’s Nibelheim. And the same could be said of the songs and cries of the solo clarinet. Here, Damiens appeared to be completely in his element. Not only was his mastery of the necessary extended techniques never in doubt; the way in which his tone proved able to merge with and to emerge from the voices was quite extraordinary, another celebration of and tribute to Nono’s humanist vision. Both work and performance were thus political in the very broadest, most all-encompassing sense. This is no period piece but part of an ongoing struggle, happily reconstructed and made new. And so must be our reception. In the words of Gabriel, an Angolan guerrilla: ‘Não poden queimar a floresta pois ela è jovern e cheja de vida.’ (They can’t burn down the forest because it is young and full of life.)