Monday 25 October 2010

Helmut Lachenmann Weekend, Southbank Centre, 23-24 October 2010

Queen Elizabeth Hall and Royal Festival Hall

String Quartet no.1, ‘Gran Torso’
String Quartet no.3, ‘Grido’

Arditti String Quartet: Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan (violins), Ralf Ehlers (viola), Lucas Fels (cello)

Ein Kinderspiel
Got Lost

Helmut Lachenmann (piano)
Oliver Coates (cello)
Clio Gould (violin)
Sarah Leonard (soprano)
Rolf Hind (piano)

Film: …wo ich noch nie war (Bettina Ehrhardt)

Schreiben (United Kingdom premiere)

Rolf Hind (piano)
London Sinfonietta
Brad Lubman (conductor)

Not so much a review, as a few thoughts arising from the Southbank Centre’s Helmut Lachenmann Weekend. We should be grateful that it happened at all. Whilst given his due in certain parts of continental Europe – including residencies at the Salzburg and Lucerne Festivals, the latter featured in Bettina Ehrhardt’s film – Lachenmann has not been well served on this sceptred isle. I was staggered to discover in June that the LSO’s performance of Double (Grido) was the first British symphony orchestra performance of any of his works – and that only came about on account of Maurizio Pollini designing the programme. The London Sinfonietta has of course performed Lachenmann, and was here, in the final concert, considerably expanded to full symphonic size; but whether it be the fault of conductors, orchestras, or concert promoters, the record has been lamentable. Three cheers then to the Southbank Centre and to the performers involved.

First among equals here must be accounted the Arditti Quartet, whose performances of the first and third quartets – again featured, along with the second, in …wo ich noch nie war – must surely be accounted close to definitive. Lachenmann’s music requires excellent performance, it seems; indeed, he makes just that point in the film, not in an arrogant way, but almost by way of assimilation to the tradition of Mozart. Beethoven too looms large in so many of Lachenmann’s works – not in the sense of sounding ‘like’ him, though the example of the Grosse Fuge is far from irrelevant in that respect, but as a forerunner in terms of effort and moral countenance. One thing that emerged throughout the weekend, without ever being directly mentioned, was the crucial importance of Lachenmann’s German Protestant background. His father was a Lutheran pastor – not the only comparison one might make with Nietzsche – and Helmut is nothing if not a preacher. Indeed, it was intriguing to hear him speak of his teacher, Nono, visiting him in Germany, and, firebrand communist though he was, evincing respect for Lachenmann’s church, even attending divine service, intrigued by the prospect of silent prayer.

Silence is crucial to both composers – and to many others, of course. One of the most moving moments came with profound silence in the third quartet. Grido might be the Italian for ‘scream’, but that is not the only, nor even the most important, quality we hear. Extremes of quiet characterised the first too, audibly in Nono’s tradition. Here, it seemed to me, perhaps more than in the two large-scale orchestral pieces, however well performed by Rolf Hind and the Sinfonietta under Brad Lubman, spoke the true voice of the composer, with a purity that could hardly fail to put one in mind of Webern. It was, however, intriguing to hear both Schreiben and Ausklang in the light of Lachenmann’s avowed respect for Strauss, and his Alpine Symphony in particular (many thanks once again to the film). Not only did Strauss emerge as a precursor of Lachenmann’s musique concrète instrumentale – and he really is: just listen, not only to the wind machine! But Lachenmann’s use of the orchestra emerged as a virtuosic, though never merely virtuosic, playing upon an instrument, creating tone poems in a sense. I struggled somewhat with the form in these large-scale works: Ausklang is on a Brahmsian scale as a concerto. But they will doubtless repay further listening; one should not always expect to grasp a work immediately. There was certainly a sense of something very much worth attempting to grasp.

This issue of playing, indeed creating, an instrument comes to the very heart of Lachenmann. What emerged especially powerfully during the sequence from Ein Kinderspiel to Got Lost was his need to make each instrument his own, so that it was not, as it were, Beethoven’s, Brahms’s, or Schoenberg’s piano, but Lachenmann’s. ‘Extended techniques’ rather misleads, getting things the wrong way round. He seems to be doing something quite different from, say, Berio. For new techniques are created; Lachenmann plays the instrument with his music, rather than the other way round. And then, just as consonance – take the third quartet in particular – can reappear, ravishingly so, without the baggage of tonality as such, so can apparently ‘conventional’ writing, which is in fact anything but. Oliver Coates’s account of the solo cello work – Lachenmann tellingly describes it as ‘for cellist’ rather than for the instrument – was superlative in its technical and, yes, expressive, constructivism. Lachenmann spoke in one of the discussions of Bach: he was not trying to make one cry in ‘Erbarme dich,’ whose violin melody Lachenmann sang, but that was the result nevertheless. (Clearly, tonalities are of great importance to him, for he referred to Bach’s B minor rather than to the St Matthew Passion as such; likewise keys in Beethoven, Strauss, Mahler, and otherwise were explored in his verbal responses.) Lachenmann may not, then, have been trying to express, but that does not mean that he did not.

After the piece ‘for cellist’ the Toccatina for violin sounded almost like light music, but in a different context, with different ears, one might well have thought differently. Lachenmann’s rethinking and reconstruction of the voice came to the foreground in the excellent account from Sarah Leonard and Rolf Hind of Got Lost, its title taken from an English-language announcement in a Grunewald lift of lost laundry. Perhaps significantly, or perhaps not, Nietzsche’s Gay Science provides another of the texts. At any rate, this is use of words very much in a certain tradition of Nono – think of Il canto sospeso – albeit in a sterner, more Teutonic fashion. The preacher demands to be heard.

Nevertheless, it was the child’s play of the piano piece that perhaps made the most enduring impression of all. Doubtless the effect of Ein Kinderspiel was enhanced by having the composer himself as performer. But the distillation of Lachenmann principles – again creating the instrument, and, as it were, playing it on his music, rather than the other way round – in music that a child could and certainly should play, was not only instructive in itself. Lachenmann was also revealed as a true poet of the piano; more than once, Debussy sprang to mind as a possible inspiration. I for one was moved to wish to acquire the score to play for myself: a perfect counterpart to Children’s Corner or pieces from Mikrokosmos. Was that charm one discerned? Who would have thought it?