Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Varèse 360° (2) and (3) - London Sinfonietta/National Youth Orchestra/Atherton/Daniel, 18 April 2010

Queen Elizabeth Hall and Royal Festival Hall

Varèse – Hyperprism, for wind and percussion
Un grand sommeil noir, for voice and piano
Offrandes, for soprano and chamber orchestra
Poème électronique
Intégrales, for wind and percussion

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton (conductor)
Cathie Boyd (staging, director, video, lighting)
Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Sound Intermedia
Pippa Nissen (video)
Zerlina Hughes (lighting)
Dan Ayling (stage manager)

Varèse-Chou Wen-Chung – Tuning Up
Varèse – Arcana
Nocturnal, for soprano, male chorus, and small orchestra

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Paul Daniel (conductor)
Same production team as previous concert


These two Sunday concerts completed the Southbank Centre’s presentation of the complete Varèse, initiated with a London Sinfonietta concert two nights previously. The Sinfonietta under David Atherton played for the first, again in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, after which we walked across to the Royal Festival Hall, to hear the National Youth Orchestra.

Hyperprism opened the Sinfonietta concert, immediately impressing upon us the urban nature of Varèse’s musical landscapes. Brash and virile, it also had its sleazier moments, in which I fancied I could hear a kinship with another Busoni pupil, Kurt Weill. Un grand sommeil seems to be the only surviving work from Varèse’s pre-1921 period, the others having been destroyed in a warehouse fire: myth-making for a year zero that is almost too good to be true, and yet appears to be just that. It was fascinating to hear this Debussyan Verlaine setting from Elizabeth Atherton and John Constable. The former’s diction was outstanding, though she was a little too tremulous in her delivery. For the first time in the series, we heard a stringed instrument, a double bass, in Octandre. The sinuous woodwind opening, especially Gareth Hulse’s oboe solo, contrasted strongly, as it should, with subsequent jaggedness. As so often with Varèse, one heard echoes of Stravinsky: here the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Offrandes, the first of Varèse’s American works, followed. Here, we heard a few more strings (two violins, viola, cello, double bass, and harp), softening the general tone a little, and providing a very tentative bridge with tradition. Elizabeth Atherton seemed more at home in this highly dramatic performance, in which trumpeter Alistair Mackie also shone in his solo work.

One cannot really say anything about a ‘performance’ of the still extraordinary Poème électronique. The last time I had heard it was in a Sinfonietta concert at Kings Place, in which Le Corbusier’s original film was shown. Here the images were more abstract, arguably permitting one to concentrate more closely upon the music, though the former experience was probably the more interesting. At any rate, this sonic tragedy, initiated by tolling bells and culminating in electronic storm-winds, had lost none of its raw, elemental power. Finally came Intégrales: Varèse surely wrote nothing more masterly than this. The performance again brought out Stravinskian antecedents, the Rite of Spring in particular, through the sharp, insistent repetition of rhythmic cells. Oboe solos once again stood out as particularly exquisite, but it was perhaps above all the hieratic nature of the work that shone through, the chorales presaging a sharply materialist version, if that can be imagined, of Messiaen.

And so to the Festival Hall, to hear the NYO under Paul Daniel. Or not under Paul Daniel, in the opening Tuning Up, Varèse’s witty parody of the opening procedure of a typical orchestral concert. I especially enjoyed the quotation from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, but most captivating was the sense of an event coming into life. I am yet to be convinced that the full orchestra – and the NYO was more than full! – presents the best of Varèse, but Arcana is surely the best of orchestral Varèse. What one heard – and indeed saw – most of all was the sheer enthusiasm with which these young musicians, none older than eighteen, approach and execute their task. It is testament to their achievement that no thought of ‘difficulty’ entered the mind: Varèse was above all enjoyable. Once again echoes of the Rite were heard in what sounded like a veritable concerto for orchestra. And at last one heard soaring strings given their head.

The second half opened with Varèse’s last work, Nocturnal. Elizabeth Watts and the vocal group Laudibus gave a committed performance, replete with histrionics of crucifixion. I cannot claim to understand a work I find frankly bizarre – whoever would have linked Varèse and Anaïs Nin?! – but one cannot gainsay its dramatic effect. We then heard the British premiere of the original, 1921 version of Amériques, including offstage brass and music excised from the composer’s final, slightly more practical, version. The sheer extravagance of the orchestration was relished by Daniel and the orchestra, though I think more is probably ultimately less here: interesting but not necessarily to be preferred – unlike, say, Petrushka or The Firebird. Fantastical, optimistic, sprawling, full of incident, this was clearly the America of Varèse’s dreams, even if they were never to be fulfilled. There was also, however, or at least I fancied so, a more Gallic edge to some of the music that would be excised, indicating a soul in transition. It was, then, all the more fitting that, for an encore, we should hear the work which, when Varèse heard it in Turin, convinced him to become a composer: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. And after the complete Varèse, it was perhaps a relief to hear a Debussy performance that was warm, almost Romantic, rather than stridently modernist. The true radicalism of this first piece of twentieth-century music will, in any case, always tell. I suspect that this will not be the last time we shall hear the excellent flautist Joshua Batty so sensitively voice its tones.