Sunday 18 April 2010

Varèse 360° (1) - London Sinfonietta/Atherton, 16 April 2010

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Varèse – Ionisation, for thirteen percussionists
Varèse – Density 21.5, for solo flute
Varèse-Chou Wen-chung – Dance for Burgess, fragment for chamber orchestra
Varèse – Ecuatorial, for bass and ensemble
Varèse-Chou Wen-chung – Etude pour Espace
Varèse – Déserts, for wind, piano, percussion, and tape

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton (conductor)
Cathie Boyd (staging, director, video, lighting)
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble
Jonathan Golove, Natasha Farny (cello theremin)
Sound Intermedia
Pippa Nissen (video)
Zerlina Hughes (lighting)
Dan Ayling (stage manager)

The complete Varèse in three weekend concerts was a brave undertaking, the fruition of a long-held ambition of Gillian Moore, the Southbank Centre’s Head of Contemporary Culture, richly rewarded in a queue for returns outside the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I admit that I was surprised, though delighted, and wondered how many of the audience were drawn in by the multi-media presentation. For me, that aspect was the least interesting, much of it barely going beyond something one might see on a computer screen-saver, though it often had the merit of changing form in a fashion that delineated structure, doubtless a useful ‘visual score’ element for some. Still, it did no harm, and seemed to elicit appreciation from many.

Ionisation – could one ask for a more ‘twentieth-century’ title? – sounds barely less radical than it must have done seventy years ago. It received from the percussionists of the London Sinfonietta, under David Atherton, a performance of great impetus, fierce in its uncompromising radicalism, like a miniature Rite of Spring on speed – in more than one sense. As with so much Varèse, this is in many respects an utterly urban landscape: music for Le Corbusier, if you will. And yet, an African primitivism also shone through. Density 21.5 also bares its scientific inspiration in its title, in this case the density of platinum: the work was written for a new platinum instrument, made for flautist George Barrère. This evening’s flautist – Michael Cox, I think – gave an unusually, yet refreshingly, muscular account, which could yet hark back to Debussy when necessary. Dance for Burgess is an occasional work, written, believe it or now, for Burgess Meredith’s musical comedy, Happy as Larry, whose run lasted all of a single night. The Sinfonietta presented a raucous, almost Ivesian fragment, with gleaming, hard-edged brass: a typical Varese sound, with more than a nod, as Malcolm Macdonald’s excellent programme notes suggested, to Cubism.

The first half culminated in the extraordinary Ecuatorial, which might here have been subtitled ‘John Tomlinson sings Varèse’: perhaps only surprising to those who think of this searching artist simply as a Wagnerian. Birtwistle, Henze, and many others would tell us otherwise. Tomlinson provided a proper tension between raging reminiscent of a bass Gurrelieder Waldemar, if you can imagine such a thing, and something still more elemental, more sage: the Rite again? There is, and I do not mean this in a negative sense, something nonsensical to a modern, Western listener about this Mayan incantation. And there are, of course, many unexpected sounds from the orchestra, not least, in such a setting, the organ, here played by Iain Farrington. It is interesting that, in its – unconscious? – homage to the Doktor Faust of Varèse’s teacher, Busoni, the instrument actually elicits more surprise than the two theremin cellos.

A certain mediævalism, perhaps an almost inevitable consequence of choral writing, announced itself in the Etude pour Espace, ‘orchestrated and arranged for spatialised live concert performance’ by one of Varèse’s pupils, Chou Wen-chung. The EXAUDI vocal ensemble acquitted itself very well, both chorally and soloistically, the work emerging majestic, triumphant, like coronation music for the twentieth century – and beyond. Again, Varèse showed us that uncompromising need not equal ‘difficult’, and indeed ‘difficulty’ is often as much a product of listeners’ prejudice as anything else. Déserts presents quite another landscape, and here the video images seemed well judged in presenting suggestions of a nuclear age world. The performance was implacable, both immediate and, from its muted brass, distanced. Woodwind are equally crucial, of course, likewise the tape interpolations that so shocked the 1954 audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The block writing – tape and instruments are never heard together – coincided with visual variation, but I cannot imagine that anyone would have failed to register the change aurally. One could hear the deserts, whether urban or extra-terrestrial, of the title far better than they might ever be seen.