Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Philharmonia/Benjamin, 21 October 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Xenakis – Pithoprakta
Benjamin – Sudden Time
Ligeti – Atmosphères
Messiaen – Chronochromie

Philharmonia Orchestra
George Benjamin (conductor)

This was in many respects a fine concert. It had an intelligent programme, based upon the idea of ‘Sensations in Time’, presenting ‘four different views of time passing’. Four excellent composers, connected but with highly individual modernist voices, were featured. The Philharmonia Orchestra played under the baton of one of them, George Benjamin, himself the favourite pupil of another, Olivier Messiaen. Moreover, the performances were technically precise – no mean feat in such technically challenging repertoire – and displayed an impressively wide variety of orchestral colour.

Xenakis’s Pithoprakta (‘actions though probabilities’) is written for forty-six strings, two trombones (used only once but with great impact), xylophone, and woodblock. The sound-world is startlingly original, although the Bartók of the Music for strings, percussion, and celesta actually sprang to my mind. One can imagine – and I did on this occasion – the glissandi in the score and performance as flickerings upon a radar screen or as figures of fractal geometry. There is also a sense of the natural world, intentionally or otherwise, of the swarming of bees. I even fancied that in the sweepings of the strings I heard a recollection of Messiaen’s beloved ondes martenot. Punctuating these sounds were the interventions from the regular sounding of the woodblock: implacable and somehow both disturbing and reassuring. The musicians of the Philharmonia could hardly be faulted in their execution of the score, directed by Benjamin with precision and understanding. And yet, I missed the last ounce – and perhaps the last few ounces – of aggression, of that raw power that complements Xenakis’s intellectual achievement. One may differ from Boulez’s fastidious judgement that Xenakis had a fantastic brain but absolutely no ear, but one wishes to hear the quality that led a fellow Messiaen pupil to speak thus.

Many would find the sound-world of Benjamin’s Sudden Time more ingratiating. There is certainly more of a sense of landscape, perhaps both temporal and visual. A French heritage, especially that of Debussy, is apparent, especially in the sonorous woodwind – here performed with aplomb – and in the work’s harmony. A duet between harp and English horn was especially haunting in this performance, reminiscent of or perhaps even prefiguring the antique evocations of Birtwistle. The whole orchestra was on fine form but particular mention should also go to leader Maya Iwabuchi, the muted trumpets, and guest principal viola, Jane Atkins, with whose closing solo time finally becomes passed – or past. Benjamin’s ‘sense of elasticity, of stretching, warping, and coming back together,’ born of a dream in which a split-second thunderclap sounded stretched out to a minute or longer, was powerfully conveyed by the composer and his musicians. So was the line from Wallace Stevens’s Martial Cadenza, from which Benjamin acquired the work’s title: ‘It was like sudden time in a world without time.’

Ligeti’s Atmosphères received a splendid performance, wanting nothing in the mystery that is almost its trademark. There was an almost organ-like quality to the brass close to the beginning. Piccolos were properly piercing and the double-basses thundered as they should. Under the once-again swarming surface, the constantly moving and changing harmonic structures made their presence felt. Although Ligeti said that he had not known of Xenakis’s precedent, it was an excellent idea to perform this 1961 classic of note clusters and polyrhythms with Pithoprakta from five years earlier.

In Chronochromie, Messiaen explores the relationship between sound and colour, making this a most apt work with which to conclude, if not quite to climax. There was much to commend in this performance. Messiaen’s voice was as unmistakeable from the outset as that of his birds. The tuned percussionists who provided such a riot of birdsong were truly outstanding. Benjamin imparted an unerring sense of harmonic direction and the distinction to which Messiaen himself referred, between implacable rigour (modes of duration) and freedom (birdsong) was readily apparent. I thought the violins a little lacking in vibrancy when playing en masse, but they truly came into their own in the exhilarating if fatiguing Epode: free counterpoint of eighteen independent (bird) voices, connecting with the Xenakis and Ligeti works. The coda came, as it should, as a relief, after such mania, disorder, or ‘freedom’, however one wishes to understand it.

What, then, was the source of my nagging doubts? I do not think it was a matter of Messiaen fatigue at this stage in the anniversary year. (His piece, though the longest, was only one of four.) I think ultimately it lay in Benjamin’s direction and certainly not in the Philharmonia’s execution. Chronochromie in particular lacked the final sense of awe, that quality again of raw power, of Messiaen’s music being ‘about’ something other than itself. It was almost prettified. Perhaps the same could be said about Pithoprakta. I am all for new music – although none of this is actually so new anymore – being treated in classical fashion, just as classical music can profitably be treated as new. Yet the sense of trail-blazing discovery – and the music featured in this programme is surely as trail-blazing as music comes – was somewhat blunted. There was a commendable attention to detail throughout. Detail, however, should heighten the impact of the greater picture; this was not always the case here. An audition on returning home of Boulez’s superlative Cleveland recording of Chronochromie reassured me that precision and expression are far from antithetical in such repertoire. For all the nonsense that is spoken of Boulez’s alleged ‘objectivity’ – itself by now almost a meaningless word in such a context – that Messiaen pupil imparted a greater sense of the subject, of conflict, of drama.