Sunday 4 October 2009

London Sinfonietta: Sonic Explorations - 20th Century Classics (2), 3 October 2009

Kings Place, Hall One

Varèse – Poème Electronique (with film by Le Corbusier)
Stockhausen – Pole for 2
Berio – Naturale

Paul Silverthorne (viola)
Sam Walton (percussion)
Sound Intermedia

The second of the London Sinfonietta’s two 20th Century Classics concerts, themselves part of a greater series of Sonic Explorations, retained Luciano Berio from the first programme, adding two other great electronic pioneers to the roster: Edgard Varèse and Karlheinz Stockhausen. To my mind, or at least to my senses, Berio’s contribution was the most powerful, whilst Stockhausen’s Pole for 2 had not worn well.

It was, however, fascinating to hear Varèse’s Poème Electronique whilst watching Le Corbusier’s original film. Last summer the poem had been heard at the Proms, in a concert that had proved one of the highlights of the season. It was interesting to note how different the work seemed, with its partial context restored. I am not entirely sure that this restoration, as with so many others, ultimately redounded to the work’s advantage. The chance to see Le Corbusier’s images, an old-fashioned encyclopædia of ‘world civilisations’, was interesting in itself, but I found myself distracted, and less able to listen to Varèse’s extraordinary score as ‘organised sound’ in its own right. One might argue, of course, that this was never the composer’s intention, that I am turning the poem into ‘absolute music’, to which I am tempted to reply, ‘Romantic as charged’. But these are musings concerning the work and what one day might be considered rudimentary matters of ‘Varèse performance practice’. The realisation by the London Sinfonietta’s David Sheppard and Ian Dearden (Sound Intermedia) was beyond reproach.

Next came Stockhausen’s Pole for 2. I said that it had not worn well; that at least was the impression garnered by this performance, from the two members of Sound Intermedia using sounds from shortwave radio, processed live with computers. (It can also, I believe, be performed with two instruments or voices.) I can imagine that it is absorbing and even great fun to perform and that one learns a great deal by following Stockhausen’s instructions as to interaction between the two performers; perhaps one even becomes frustrated by the composer’s refusal, even in a graphic score, to let go, and this tension becomes part of the experience. But, even with the assistance of visualisation on screen, just listening to a tour around various shortwave frequencies – even the snatches of garage music sounded dated: ‘very 2002’, as my more knowledgeable companion ironically observed – struck me as an unsatisfactory compromise between organised and disorganised sound. Stockhausen’s achievements are legion; I should hesitate to place this one highly, at least in terms of any (post-)Romantic conception of a musical work.

There are no such problems with Berio’s marvellous Naturale, for viola, percussion, and tape. With Varèse, the purely human has been relegated to the merely human; with Stockhausen, one often seems to be straining towards the extra-terrestrial, with Berio, the music is rooted in actual, historical, human experience. All of these approaches have their strengths; yet, on this occasion, Berio’s won out for me. The extracts from Sicilian folksongs recorded on tape ought to be fundamental; in a sense they doubtless are. However, such was the strength of the performances from Paul Silverthorne and Sam Walton that the folksong elements seemed at least as much to emerge from the ‘purely musical’ – actually nothing of the sort – as vice versa. Walton reminded us that, whilst electronics have been one of the twentieth century’s great additions to the instrumental palette, so too has the increasing diversity of the percussionist’s palette. Tuned and untuned, rhythmically driving and dramatically punctuating: this truly drew one in to the composer’s extraordinary sound world. So did his interaction with Silverthorne – and that of both with the tape. One of Silverthorne’s many achievements was to remind us of the very particular qualities of the viola; here it proved a bridge between old and new, West and East. Not only the virtuosity but the musical sensitivity with which Silverthorne performed provided a veritable masterclass; this could almost have been Bach, such were the security of performance and its probing nature. Alas, misfortune was to strike when one of his strings snapped. The hall’s evening schedule doubtless made it impossible to start again from the beginning, once the errant string had been replaced; instead, as the sound projectionists were instructed, the work resumed at figure J. I should have been more than happy to have heard the entire work twice, but it would not do to be ungrateful, having been treated to so rare and valuable an opportunity.