Royal Albert Hall
Ravel: La Valse
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
London Voices (chorus master: Ben Parry)
Ian Dearden, Sound Intermedia (sound projection)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
A richly allusive programme and performance, this. With any artwork – even, one might say, with anything at all – we all bring something different to it and take away something different too. With Berio in meta-mode, that becomes still more the case, in Sinfonia at least as much as in, say, La vera storia. (Will someone please, please stage that – or indeed any of the composer’s operas? The closest I have come was a wonderful performance of Laborintus II in Berlin from Simon Rattle et al.) Both La Valse and The Rite of Spring are quoted – allusively and/or elusively? – in Sinfonia, of course, but that is perhaps not really the point; or at least it was not for this particular listener on this particular occasion. I was led to think what ballet and opera might be or have been, what their relationships might be or have been, how they relate to the ‘symphony’ or sinfonia, and indeed to that thing, that practice, that whatever-and/or-however-we-want-to-think-of-and/or-experience-it we call ‘music’.
La Valse opened de profundis, as a companion to the yet-to-be-heard Rite: highly, ominously rhythmic, waltz fragments and later waltzes (?) themselves evolving. Much was seen, or rather heard – although somehow I fancied I saw things here too, in a ballet of the mind – as if through a kaleidoscope. The business of the senses, as of the mind, is messy, contradictory. Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra imparted unease as much through variegation of colour as rubato or harmony. There was often, not always, a mechanistic quality: paradoxical perhaps, given the apparent freedom of the waltz(ing), yet in keeping with the dialectics at work in the rest of the evening’s programme. Such, after all is this work, that conflict conveyed with disturbing magic in this performance.
The darkness of the opening chord of Sinfonia seemed, in context, to relate to the opening of La Valse. Voices entered, rendering – to use an appropriately Berian term – the music ‘lighter’ perhaps, or at least differently mysterious. Then they were off. Words from Claude Lévi-Strauss – I do not think we should say this is Lévi-Strauss him- or itself, or should we? – emerged, individual voices emerged: from the mass and vice versa. Words and sound, words’ relationship with sound, with instruments, and so on: all this and more was not just what we were led to think about; it was what we experienced. It was music. How ‘symphonic’ it was or should have been really depends entirely upon definitions: not an interesting game, really, save for the analytical philosopher – who, tellingly, will rarely have anything to tell us about music.
The name, the sound of Martin Luther King came together, like the musical forces as a whole, in the second movement. Points – however understood – of precision, of incision, not least from piano and brass seemed to gain meaning against the backdrop of a more mysterious ‘mass’, again however understood; and vice versa. Deconstruction was not only our lot, our necessity; it was our joy, our freedom, our music. Beguiling yet menacing, the wonderland of the third movement, like its Mahlerian bedding, asked us: what does this mean, where are we heading, perhaps even who cares? And of course, it told us: ‘keep going’. Interplay between voices and instruments, as well as their differentiation, seemed especially apparent in this performance. ‘Thank you, Mr Bychkov’: from which the fourth movement flowed, a tributary perhaps, or even a tribute, as if Mahler’s ‘O Röschen rot,’ yet not, emphatically not. This and the fifth movement sounded, as indeed the performance had increasingly, retrospectively as a whole, as if an instrumental, vocal, electronic madrigal reborn, both consciously and unconsciously. The opening to the latter, with its piano, flute, and soprano trio, seemed to incite a rejuvenation or better a reinvention of the work’s earlier musical worlds in both unity and dissolution.
Again in context, the multifarious woodwind lines of The Rite of Spring’s opening sounded as if a response to Berio. Wilder, I think, even now: testament to a performance that refused to treat this totemic work as a glossy ‘orchestral showpiece’. It was never, ever slick, constantly ratcheting the rhythmic and harmonic tension. Given Stravinsky’s method, ‘developed’ is probably the wrong word, yet Bychkov heard and projected it as a single, vivid narrative that yet gave space and voice to its individual scenes. Motivic insistence and transformation rightly did much of the work, grinding of ritualistic gears lacking nothing in force, willpower, and fatal inevitability, such affinities and conflicts readily evoking parallels in the previous two works on the programme. ‘The Sacrifice’ began as if a second act to a wordless opera; in a sense, it is: a new world or at least a new standpoint that only makes sense in reference to its predecessor. (Might one not say the same of movements of a symphony, or a sinfonia?) There was strangeness here that was anything but appliqué: no effort to be different, no effort to impress. Perhaps the challenge of playing the Rite today is actually to play it as music. Perhaps the same might also be said of the challenge of listening to it and indeed to any music.