Wednesday 20 August 2008

Prom 45: BBC SSO/Volkov, et al., 19 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Harvey – Tombeau de Messiaen
Messiaen – Concert à quatre
Harvey – Mortuos plango, vivos voco
Harvey (with Gilbert Nouno and Arshia Cont: IRCAM computer music designers) – Soundings (world premiere)
Varèse – Poème électronique
Varèse – Déserts

Cédric Tiberghien (piano)
Emily Beynon (flute)
Alexei Ogrintchouk (oboe)
Danjulo Ishizaka (’cello)
Jonathan Harvey (sound projection: Harvey)
Jerémie Henrot and Clément Marie (IRCAM sound projection: Soundings)
Ben Bayliss and Chris Beddall (sound projection: Varèse)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov (conductor)

Interesting and intelligent programming may prove to be a hallmark of Roger Wright’s tenure at the Proms. One can only hope so following the previous dispensation, much of which has remained in evidence during this ‘changeover’ season. At the heart of the programme lay the music of Jonathan Harvey, a fine composer, far too often overlooked in his own country. It would seem that his marriage of modernism, not least a keen interest in French spectralism and electronics, and a deep, syncretic spirituality – yes, I too generally run a mile upon hearing that word; but this is the real thing, not the easy-access, synthetic bells and smells of the ‘holy minimalists’ – has not always appealed to the English empirical temperament. All the more reason then to grant him such a splendid opportunity as this. Harvey studied with Messiaen and the two composers’ concerns in various ways overlap. An ongoing association with IRCAM – brain-child of Boulez, another Messiaen pupil – brought us the classic electronic work, Mortuos plango, vivos voco, and a new work, Soundings, co-commissioned by the BBC, IRCAM, and Radio France, as the third and final part of a trilogy ‘referring to the Buddhist purification of body, mind, and speech’. Soundings was composed by Harvey as Composer-in-Association to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who premiered it this evening. And then, for the third part of the concert, we turned to the still-bracing dawn of electronic music, to the work of Varèse. Having questioned the suitability of the Royal Albert Hall for various more ‘conventional’ works, I am happy to report that, on this occasion, the space worked very well. This may partly have been owed to the vagaries of seating – even sitting a few seats away appears to make quite a difference here – yet the space itself added something important, visually and acoustically, to the electronic works.

Harvey’s Tombeau de Messiaen, for piano and digital tape, opened the programme. In a brief programme note, Harvey cited Messiaen as a ‘protospectralist ... fascinated by the colours of the harmonic series and its distortions, ... [who] found therein a prismatic play of light’. And so, the tape part of this 1994 tribute is made of twelve piano sounds tuned to the harmonic series, one for each pitch class. The piano part, in equal temperament of course, then plays with these series, both combining with and distorting them: ‘never entirely belonging, never entirely separate’. This interplay was dazzlingly captured by Cédric Tiberghien, as were the bell-like echoes – a slightly nauseous yet colourful pealing – not only of Messiaen but also, I fancied, of the Debussy of La cathédrale engloutie. ‘Echoes’ was also the operative word for the crucial role of the hall. Harvey and Tiberghien exploited the full extremities of the keyboard, before moving to a piercing climax of an almost Messiaenesque ecstasy.

Concert à quatre (1990-92) is Messiaen’s final work, completed by Yvonne Loriod, in consultation with Heinz Holliger and George Benjamin. From the very first notes, it is instantly recognisable as Messiaen, indeed as the work of the same composer who, compositional developments notwithstanding, had written L’Ascension sixty years earlier. Emily Beynon and Alexei Ogrintchouk are both principals with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, whose long experience with French music was surely valuable here, but the BBC SSO too managed to sound convincingly ‘modern French’ (think of the Orchestre de Paris or the Orchestre National de France). In the first movement, the Entrée, it was once again Tiberghien’s opportunity to shine, the piano being treated as a solo instrument apart from the rest of the concertante group. Needless to say, he grasped this opportunity, exhibiting glistening tone and dazzling rhythmical precision. The orchestra’s ten (!) percussionists, including wind-machine, certainly made their presence felt too, though never unduly. For the second movement Vocalise, Messiaen transcribed with ornamentation a piece he had written in 1935 for a series of vocal studies. It is tribute to the constancy of his style and voice, that this in no sense sounded out of place. The beautiful A major melody, ‘warmed’, in Paul Griffiths’s excellent choice of verb, by the composer’s third mode of limited transposition, was passed between each of the soloists in turn, the orchestra here being of secondary importance, timbral ‘warming’ furnished by a limited number of strings. Beynon presented a ravishingly lyrical opening, followed by an equally heart-stopping duet between oboe and piano, Ogrintchouk being possessed, it would seem, of unlimited and luxurious reserves of line and breath. The unapologetically Romantic ’cello entry was meltingly taken by BBC New Generation Artist, Danjulo Ishizaka, who also shone in the ensuing Cadenza. So too did the combined forces of the xylophone, xylorimba, and marimba. For the final Rondeau, Ilan Volkov clearly delineated its verse-refrain form. He and his players also imparted a welcome sense of the apocalyptic. The dialogue between piano and bells took on an aptly ecclesiastical tinge as versicle and response. This movement teemed, quite properly, with life and joy.

Mortuos plango, vivos voco, for eight-channel tape (1980), was inspired by the sounds of bells and choristers at Winchester Cathedral, where Harvey’s son had sung. The largest bell has inscribed upon it the text: HORAS AVOLANTES NUMERO, MORTUOS PLANGO, VIVOS AD PRECES VOCO (‘I count the fleeing hours, I lament the dead, I call the living to prayer’). Harvey cleverly – and movingly – conveys this through the ‘dead’, however rich, sound of the bell and the ‘live’ sound of the boy, the audience inside the surrounding sound of the former, whilst the latter ‘flies freely around’. I was reminded not only of the English cathedral tradition– and of English cathedrals themselves –but also of the strange, threatening, yet ineffably beautiful Venice of Nono. It was interesting to note how very much more human, less alien, this work sounded than Stockhausen’s COSMIC PULSES had a couple of weeks before. This is new music concerned with utterly ‘traditional’ Christian concerns of life and death, nowhere more so than in the dying away al niente of the bell sounds. The hall itself took on an aptly Gothic splendour as the frame for the music.

In Soundings, Harvey explains, he ‘wanted to bring together orchestral music and human speech. It is as if the orchestra is learning to speak, like a baby with its mother, or like first man, or like listening to a highly expressive language we don’t understand. The rhythms and emotional tones of speech are formed by semantics, but even more they are formed by feelings – in that respect they approach song.’ Quite apart from the eloquence with which the composer elucidated the imperative behind his work, this is very much what we heard, for which tribute should also be paid to Volkov and his excellent orchestra. (How very different from the dispiriting Mahler and Damnation of Faust I heard them give at the Proms a few years ago.) The Ur-quality of the opening inevitably brought to mind earlier ‘creations’ of music out of the void: The Creation, Das Rheingold, Berg’s Op.6 Orchestral Pieces. This sounded very much as Harvey described it: ‘like an incarnation, the descent into human life.’ Leader Elizabeth Layton did sterling work with several taxing solos, although she was far from alone in this respect. Swarming strings and Messiaenesque chattering woodwind were keen contributors. The second of the three movements – continuous, yet distinct – is an expansion of the work Sprechgesang (for English horn and chamber ensemble). For Harvey, it is ‘concerned with the frenetic chatter of human life in all its expressions of domination, assertion, fear, love, etc.’, which ‘finally moves, exhausted, to mantra and a celebration of ritual language. The mantra is orchestrated and treated by shape vocoding.’ The voices actually put me in mind of an electronic version of Berio’s Sinfonia, which of course has its fair share of ‘frenetic chatter’. Passages of joy were reminiscent once again of Messiaen, who would surely have understood and shared Harvey’s concerns. There were even Romantic ghosts in the machine in the guise of virtuoso piano (splendidly performed by Lynda Cochrane) and languorous woodwind phrases. For the third movement ‘speech has a calmer purpose; it is married to a music of unity, a hymn which is close to Gregorian chant.’ This was certainly apparent, not least in the ominous monodic passages for brass and electronics. The movement built towards a shattering, almost Brucknerian climax, before reverting to some earlier material, taken in different directions, with some further Messiaenesque activity. Divisions between work, performance and audience broke down as the sound enveloped us and took us somewhere beyond, to the transcendent. ‘The paradise of the sounding temple is imagined.’

Varèse’s Poème électronique, for pre-recorded magnetic tape, was composed for Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. (Those were the days!) It was the architect’s insistence, against considerable scepticism from Philips, which ensured that Varèse would be the composer of precisely 480 seconds of music, created second by second from both ‘real’ and purely electronic sounds. (Interestingly, much of the technical design for the pavilion was delegated to Le Corbusier’s assistant, none other than the young Xenakis.) Although the pavilion was demolished, Varèse’s music was preserved and subsequently transferred to computer. The opening bell sounds provided a link with Harvey, but soon we hurtled into an extraordinary futuristic world with a multiplicity of sounds, from organ to heavy industry. At this distance – we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary –there was occasionally something of the Heath Robinson to some of this, but every work, even that of Varèse, must eventually be classicised and take upon itself something of its own time as well as ours. The closing storm-winds set the scene for the déserts of the following, final work.

Here, in Déserts, for fifteen wind instruments, percussion (all ten players once again, including piano), and magnetic tape (1950-54), we were once again awakened by the chiming of bells. An overriding impression from both work and performance would be summed up by the word Boulez had not so long previously used at the head of the seventh of his piano Notations, as yet unpublished: Hiératique. The ghost of Varèse’s own Ionisation was far from lain. Volkov and his instrumentalists were impressively insistent, accomplishing the paradoxical feat of sounding both variegated and monolithic – in fact, rather like the three interpolated passages of ‘organised sound’. All the necessary precision and timbral starkness were there. The electronic sounds are again utterly of the twentieth century – unlike much tamer twentieth-century music – in their evocation of an age of warfare and ‘technological progress’, of deserts both natural and urban, and of what Varèse called ‘this distant inner space where no telescope can reach, where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude’. Gleaming brass was uncompromisingly Corbusier-like, as opposed to the Bauhaus constructivism of some at least of twelve-note Schoenberg; it is interesting, how often one reaches for architectural simile when thinking of Varèse, more often indeed than one does with Xenakis, of whom one might have expected it. This performance marked a fine end to an outstanding concert.