Saturday 31 August 2019

Musikfest Berlin (1) - Aimard; Messiaen, 30 August 2019


Catalogue d’oiseaux

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

This is how a festival should open: world-class performance – a performance, I should wager, that has never been bettered – of a monument of the piano literature, more often spoken of than heard, at least in its entirety. Who better to perform Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux than Pierre-Laurent Aimard? As previously implied, no one. If ever there were royal lineage, it must be his: a direct link both to Messiaen and to Boulez, at one of whose Domaine musical concerts in 1959 Yvonne Loriod gave the premiere of this one collection, seven books, thirteen pieces, each of the latter bearing the name of a bird but that name providing the gateway to a French province. ‘Chaque pièce,’ in Messiaen’s words, wrote, ‘est écrite en l'honneur d'une province française. Elle porte en titre le nom de l'oiseau-type de la région choisie. Il n'est pas seul: ses voisins d'habitat l'entourent et chantent aussi … – son paysage, les heures du jour et de la nuit qui changent ce paysage, sont également présents, avec leurs couleurs, leur températures, la magie de leurs parfums.’ And so it was in practice: no need to concentrate on lineage, for this was a performance for the here and now, in which those regions, landscapes, times of day and night, colours, temperatures, and perfumes presented themselves within this ‘catalogue’, surely as theological as natural-historical. As ever in Messiaen as in Christianity worthy of the name, the systematic and the mystical go hand in hand. In truth, as in any performance, different listeners would take different things from it. It is difficult, however, to imagine anyone doubting its commitment, distinction, and enlightenment.

Aimard performed the work in three sections: Books I-III, Book IV (with just a single piece, no.7, ‘La Rousserolle effarvatte’), and Books V-VII, highlighting the symmetry of the whole (not so exact as some might claim, but what is?) and the special quality of that reed warbler and its companions’ journey from midnight through an entire day’s cycle and on to the following day’s three o’clock in the morning. One thing that struck me most strongly of all during that summit of the recital was the different character of sound Aimard elicited from different registers of his piano: almost organ-like (apt for Messiaen!) but also, somehow, reminiscent of the capabilities of earlier pianos, without loss of the advantages of the modern instrument. Quite how he accomplished that remained obscure, at least to me: pedals helped, touch too of course, but beyond that…? Likewise the different colours one heard within single chords, even within rests and fermatas, in some respects the most dramatically pregnant sections of whole. Another mystery. Strikingly Boulezian grand gestures to the middle of the night assisted with the sense of ‘parfum’, ‘couleur’, ‘températures’, and much else. A liturgical sense of time’s passing, as well as play with time, both in work and performance, proved as fascinating as anything of that ilk in Wagner.

There, as elsewhere, the character of different varieties of material but also the confrontation between them seemed to be at the heart of the drama that unfolded. The very opening of the first piece, ‘Le Chocard des Alpes’, was declamatory, even implacable, chords (literally colours, to a synaesthete such as Messiaen) confronting each other in unmistakeably 1950s-fashion, not unlike Aimard’s extraordinary way with Bach’s Art of Fugue, which I should probably try to hear again. The host of birds, their songs, those songs’ implications and connections, even in that first piece, set up patterns of contrast and sequence, of comparison and surprise, that would never be replicated, but certainly built upon. One passage there even suggested Jacob’s Ladder to me, as if the birds – humans too – were making their way to the celestial city itself. If so, it were a thoroughly constructed city, no mere mirage, Rameau as significant a predecessor as Debussy (well, not far off, anyway). There were certainly Debussyan castle ramparts to be discerned, not a million miles from Allemonde, later in that first book, alongside Mussorgskian sounds that would surely have enchanted and inspired both composers. Indeed, time and again, I heard Boris Godunov in downward-shifting harmonies – and their wordless dramatic import – in ‘L’Alouette lulu’, prior to the first interval.

In revelation of relationships between pitch and duration, work and performance alike inevitably recalled some of Messiaen’s pupils: not only Boulez, but perhaps more intriguingly, Stockhausen too. It is surely no coincidence that Aimard has recently been performing the latter’s Klavierstücke across Europe. (I heard him do so twice, in Berlin and in London.) Resonance, harmony, rhythm, everything came together in a totality that was yet quite different from that of those Messiaen instructed. Repeated chords in ‘L’Alouette calandrelle’, for instance, told as much as any in Stockhausen. There was still starker simplicity too, in the way a final phrase in more than one of the pieces could float like plainsong: complete and yet also implicitly bidding and referring to more, to something beyond. We heard, felt, were vouchsafed divine magnificence as well as avian ecstasy. How, moreover, a captivating diminuendo to the close could hypnotise, as seductively, humanly ‘poetic’ as anything in the repertoire. Ultimately, mystery was renewed, its boundaries dissolved even as work and performances revealed its workings.

Friday 30 August 2019

Struggle and serenity: Piano works by Schoenberg, Nono, and Beethoven

Schoenberg, Nono and Beethoven: three composers and five works present a coherent programme that denies, even scorns, sentimental distinction between emotion and intellect. Dialectics of the conscious and unconscious, of struggle and serenity play out within and between, leading us not only back but also forward to Beethoven. All these works, moreover, have classic Pollini performances and recordings to their name. That does not mean we should know what to expect: both in themselves and in combination, there will always remain more to be said, played, and heard.

Illogic of the Unconscious

In 1908, Schoenberg had written his Second String Quartet op. 10, first freely breathing Stefan George’s ‘air of another planet’ – or what we, Schoenberg’s dislike notwithstanding, have come to know as ‘free atonality’. The following year proved a veritable Wunderjahr, the Drei Klavierstucke, op.11, initiating a white-heat outpouring of music: Das Buch der hängenden Gärten op. 15, the Fünf Orchesterstücke op. 16 and Schoenberg’s first completed opera, Erwartung op. 17 quickly followed. 

Brahms’s ghost often looms large in Schoenberg’s piano writing – and not only in his piano writing; the instrument had never really been Schoenberg’s ‘own’. By contrast, however, with Schoenberg’s earlier, (then) unpublished piano pieces, ‘influence’ had now been thoroughly absorbed. Crashing Romantic chords, liable to fragment horizontally and vertically at any moment, are part of the picture; so are remnants of the idea, even the form, of Brahms’s late piano works: ‘pieces’, intermezzos, rhapsodies and so on. The first piece’s ternary form (ABA) invites comparison with Brahms, as do aspects of motivic progression, though any Classicism is swiftly and, later, savagely eroded. Energy lies in a very 1909 (for Schoenberg) state of permanent flux, form and tonality dynamically annihilated almost before it can come into being: Mephistophelian or Lisztian, we might say with equal justice. That ‘almost’, though, remains.

Arnold Schönberg Center

D minor, always a favourite ‘Second Viennese School’ key, haunts the left-hand, minor-third (D–F) ostinato of the second piece, playing with thirds itself a favourite procedure of Brahms. It is nonetheless a ghost suspended and, in the third, flayed alive. ‘For a human being’, Schoenberg wrote to Busoni in 1909, ‘it is impossible to feel but one sensation at a time. One has thousands at once. […T]his variegation, this illogicality […] set forth by a soaring wave of blood, by some sense- or nerve-reaction, this I should like to have in my music.’ Schoenberg here comes close to that very ‘expression of feeling […] which connects us with our unconscious’. Ruthless deletion of all hints of repetition in manuscript emendations had him come closer still

Distilled Drama

Schoenberg’s musical thought, then, was ever dialectical, without that precluding great variety of expression, whether within and between works. In Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, op.19, we hear Schoenberg at close to his most aphoristic, each piece of a brevity courting comparison with Webern. That, however, is the only point truly held in common – and places excessive emphasis on duration. Beethoven’s late bagatelles perhaps offer more meaningful kinship: apparently simpler than much of his piano writing in their distillation of drama, expression and technique, yet at least as enigmatic as the sonatas. The hyper-expressivity of op. 11 is taken less to its logical – recall Schoenberg’s insistence on illogic – than to another, different conclusion. A line, a harmony, a poetic suggestion is voiced in purest essence: continuation of and escape from Schoenberg’s earlier self. Preoccupation with intervallic relationships characterizes many of these utterances, heard as if spoken epigrams, rich in both Brahmsian homage and serial anticipation. Obstinacy of the repeated major third (G–B) in the second piece is both generative of conflict and yet serenely unchallenged by it. Violence in the fourth likewise recalls op.11, yet stands also beyond that invitation to the abyss, on the cusp of Schoenberg’s later neoclassicism. In the final piece, inspired by the bells of Mahler’s funeral, we feel the graveyard’s chill breath: ‘wie ein Hauch’. Simultaneity of subsidence and climax offers further ‘nerve-reaction’ and an unusual degree of final peace.

Suffering Serenity

Such serenity provides both starting point and goal for the poetic idea of Luigi Nono’s 1976 …sofferte onde serene…. The waves are Venetian, so too is the tolling of bells, almost as if transposed from the Vienna of Schoenberg’s op.19 no.6. Heard, felt and answered from Nono’s home on the Giudecca, those sounds seem, as with Schoenberg’s, not only to say farewell to earlier, angrier compositional and aesthetic tendencies – tendencies that had culminated for Nono in the high-watermark of his politically committed art, the opera Al gran sole carico d’amore – but also to sustain them in distillation, in further development. ‘I could say’, Nono remarked, ‘as Schoenberg did, that, at the conclusion of each work, I wish more than ever to breathe the air of new planets’. It also continued Nono’s artistic collaboration with Pollini, initiated by Como un ola de fuerza y luz (1971–2), although the two leftist musicians had known each other since the mid-1960s. …sofferte onde serene… displayed, as Nono averred, a reduction in the multiplicity of musical material: a new path taken following a period of compositional silence.

Claudio Abbado, Luigi Nono, Maurizio Pollini

That apparent simplification in itself inspired further ‘waves’ – lagoonal and sonic – in collaboration enshrined at the work’s heart, Nono’s purpose amplification rather than counterpoint. Dedicated to Maurizio and Marilisa Pollini, it operates on two acoustic planes: Pollini live and on tape. They merge, realized in the air through artistry of sound direction – first Nono himself; tonight, André Richard. Vibrations, shadows and resonances sustain and transform memories of loss suffered by composer and pianist. Ghosts of other sounds and works in Pollini’s repertoire are honoured and transformed. (Late, Venetian-themed works by Liszt, La lugubre gondola and R.W. Venezia, were performed at the 1977 premiere.) The moment of Schoenbergian hyper-expressivity – sometimes stark, sometimes on the edge of audibility, sometimes even falling into silence –compels active listening. Nono’s politics have not drowned; they are revealed anew in the waters. So as not to confuse the political ‘provocations’ for earlier works with their substance, we must listen, suffering to break musical silence as the composer did, inspired by his pianist and friend as much as by the instrument. Counterpoint and conflict seem conspicuous by their absence, certainly by comparison to Nono’s preceding works. Whether we feel that absence as an integral aspect of the work is an impossible yet necessary question.

Fracture and enigma

Beethoven’s final two piano sonatas, opp.110 and 111, foreshadow – or in this programme, echo – the co-dependent anger and serenity of Schoenberg’s piano pieces; we might also hear them in this context heroically responding to, retrospectively inciting, the kindred humanism of Nono’s suffering waves. There are dialectics aplenty. Furious counterpoint already strains at the bounds of tonality, even the bounds of the sonata principle. By contrast, in apparently necessary response, we find music of a doubtless illusory simplicity that comes just as close to Beethovenian rage to defining our notions of the Romantic sublime.

The A-flat major sonata, though in three movements, hardly conforms to Classical expectations, the first two far shorter together than the expansive, complex finale. The serene first movement’s songfulness extends even to typically ‘late’ trills. It is marked sanft – probably at Beethoven’s dictation, for the manuscript reveals another hand – in an attempt to render con amabilità into the language not only of Goethe but also of Romantics such as Novalis. For Donald Tovey, that did not ‘mean “soft” but, as nearly as may be, “gentle” in the most ethical sense of the word.’ A sonata form that seems almost to preclude conflict, yet cannot quite, offers in its way as great a challenge as more overtly ‘heroic’ struggle. In its final bars, a prominent third interval, C to A-flat, prepares the way for re-harmonised restatement in the second movement’s new key of F minor. A scherzo in all but name, this flash of gruff, humorous brilliance proves once more, like its composer, very much its own beast, resistant to categories that would pin down rather than liberate. It culminates in a coda of sforzando cries and whispered intimacies that here may recall Schoenberg.

Highly expressive instrumental recitative prepares the way for the finale’s Klagender Gesang (‘lamenting song’), opening out a chord of A-flat minor as if a musical version of the Romanticism’s proverbial blue flower against a wintry landscape. Beethoven alternates between arioso of great sadness and fugue in constructive chain of fourths. The latter emerges in almost conciliatory fashion, in turn rendering the arioso’s Neapolitan-hued return all the greater in tragedy. Hope is restored by fugue-in-inversion, so confident in its play as to tempt one to consider it divine, beyond those mere mortals who must listen and – perhaps – even perform it. Una corda pedal extends a twin sense of mystery and certainty: the realm, perhaps, of religious faith. Through enigmas and fractures alike, Beethoven’s humanity shines through in all its contrapuntal – and other – obstinacy. Perhaps there is something, then, of the still later Missa solemnis to Beethoven’s plan. Bach’s lessons are Romanticised in music defiantly strange and strangely defiant, played out in a tonal arena that can only make sense, and then only just, in the age of the sonata.

Exorcising the daemon

The C minor sonata stands in two, highly contrasted movements, in tonic minor and tonic major respectively, symbolic in themselves of struggle and reconciliation. The diminished seventh chord, as in Beethoven’s own C minor Pathétique Sonata (op.13) and Fifth Symphony, offers both vertical and horizontal impetus from the opening melodic interval onwards: a lesson well learned later by Wagner, leading to the threshold of Schoenberg’s Klavierstücke. Fugal methods again feature strongly, heightening the sonata form struggle. The exposition’s move to the submediant, to A-flat major, rather than to the expected relative major, E-flat, helps prepare the surprise, hushed tierce di Picardie conclusion in C major, presaging the finale’s tonality.

It is a set of variations on a hymn-like ‘Arietta’, caught in the balance and dialectic – no more than with Mozart is this a case of either/or – between sublime simplicity and necessary complexity. Beethoven’s metrical shifts can hardly fail to register, nowhere more so than in the celebrated ‘boogie-woogie’ variation – in reality, nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, harmonic rhythm, as always with Beethoven, proves the true engine of progress. Asked by Anton Schindler why he had written no traditional third movement, Beethoven, should we trust his interlocutor’s account, contemptuously responded that there had been no time to do so. For there can be no doubting the transcending finality of these variations: nor the profound quality of resolution Beethoven here offers to the violent conflicts enunciated in the preceding Allegro. White-key C major, possessed once more of but a very few inflections, spins a trilling gossamer path towards a quietly intoned, serenely unanswerable Amen. This, then, is truly music that breathes the air of another planet.

(This essay was originally published in a 2019 Salzburg Festival programme for a recital by Maurizio Pollini.)

The Art of Open ‘Transcription’: Berio's Voci and Mahler's First Symphony

Openness takes many forms, musical and otherwise, and often lies in the eye or ear of the beholder or listener, not to mention particular decisions taken by performers. So too do its dialectical opposites. The music of both Berio and Mahler offers, as we shall hear, cases in point.

Elaboration and Transformation

Berio’s Voci, for viola and two instrumental groups, is subtitled ‘Folk Songs II’, immediately suggesting lineage with Berio’s 1964 cycle of Folk Songs, written for Cathy Berberian. There, folk and other songs are arranged, first for small ensemble, later, in 1973, for large orchestra, opening with viola, encouraged to play ‘like a wistful country dance fiddler’. Voci, continuing the practice of ‘return’ at roughly ten-year intervals, was composed in 1984, for the Sicilian viola player Aldo Bennici, who provided Berio with the work’s ‘original’ musical material: ‘songs of work and love, lullabies and “street cries” from different parts of Sicily’.

This time, however, Berio hoped, as he put it, ‘to contribute to the enhancement of a more profound interest in the Sicilian folklore which, along with that of Sardinia, is certainly the richest, most complex and incandescent of our Mediterranean culture’. Echoing and extending the ideas of friends such as Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, Berio sought an ‘act of transcription (like that of translation)’, that would ‘imply three different conditions’: 

The identification of the composer with the original musical text, the turning of the text into a pretext for analytical experimentation and, finally, the overpowering of the text, its deconstruction and its philological “abuse”. I believe that an ideal situation occurs only when the three conditions come to blend and co-exist. Only then may transcription become a truly creative, constructive act.

Verbal and musical narrative alike are endless, layered, endlessly layered processes.

Not that this is all ‘meta’ in quality. The sounds, sights, even the smells and spices of Sicily and the Mediterranean world surrounding it, come before our ears. Physicality and performance are intimately intertwined. Bells and violas – the latter both as soloist and in the second group – inaugurate a typical musico-theatrical display, the opening solo line suggesting both ‘folk music’ and our aestheticized ‘concert’ versions thereof – Berio rarely deals in the either/or. If we may speak at all of what Voci ‘is’, though, it is no showpiece. It seems rather to permit folk material to go where it will, for us as listeners to hear it as we will – or as it wills. ‘Traditional’ accompaniments come and go, sometimes explicit, sometimes suggested, ever ‘transcribed’.

This is emphatically not the world of Folk Songs in its first incarnation. The viola here is the singer, but more than that: even, at a pinch, the singer-songwriter. Songs, cries, colours, memories, and anticipations thereof, are material for composition, as Diabelli’s ‘cobbler’s patch’ waltz is for Beethoven’s set of variations. If Berio and his viola alter ego seem to respect the mood of the ‘originals’ more than the haughtily contemptuous Beethoven, their fidelity nonetheless lies in infidelity: like a Liszt at the piano or a director on stage. In the manner of Berio’s series of Chemins for solo instrument and orchestra, where, to cite the composer, ‘I quote, translate, expand and transcribe my Sequenzas for solo instrument’, those Chemins also proving the Sequenzas’ best analyses, material is further analysed, developed, played with, elaborated. We could even say that Berio’s Folk Songs, as well as Sicily’s folksongs are here, in the composer’s fullest sense, transcribed. ‘Why this insistence on elaborating and transforming again the same material?’, Berio once asked, again with reference to his Chemins, fellow-travellers on the way, as it were:

It is, maybe, a tribute to the belief that a thing done is never finished. Even the “completed” work is the ritual and the commentary of something which preceded it, of something which will follow it, as a question that does not provoke an answer but a commentary, and another question.

Humanistic Drama

There is existing music to be found in Mahler’s First Symphony too; there is also music that might be imagined to have existed previously yet has actually been ‘fully’ composed. It is no transcription in the usual sense, but in the present context, one of the many ways in which we might hear it might involve the elaboration and transformation of which Berio speaks – and, more to the point, which he puts into practice. Mahler’s music was certainly of great interest to the Italian composer, whether in his 1987 orchestration of Six Early Songs or the underlay to the third movement of Sinfonia provided by the Scherzo to Mahler’s Second Symphony. Moreover, just as Sicily is only partly – very partially – ‘Italian’, far better understood as Mediterranean, Mahler’s mitteleuropäisch material and musical world likewise confound easy categorization of nationality, creed, or anything else. Both composers, both works, are synthetic and, yes, open in their approach to original material and to its development.

Bearing that lightly in mind, we might hear the opening of the first movement both with hindsight and without, aware of the complexity of the relationship between artworks and history, as fruitful in performance as in analysis. To quote the doyen of Mahler scholars, Henry-Louis de La Grange, ‘few composers have succeeded in evoking so poetically and with such simple means the romantic magic of nature’s awakening, its birdsong, legendary hunting horns and distant fanfares’. This music, marked ‘slow, dragging’ and ‘like a sound of Nature’ (Naturlaut), seems perhaps less to drag, more to stand in a state of suspended animation. It will return, as if an adult, even Freudian, memory of Mahler’s eternal childhood, a memory of eternal magic and Wunderhorn Romanticism, both of which, in Berio’s sense, are ‘transcribed’ here. Mahler’s own early cantata, Das klagende Lied (1878–80, though unperformed until 1901, and then in substantially revised form), as well as other early compositions, such as the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1883–5) seem both to pave the way and to find fulfilment.

This introduction moves, like Don Giovanni or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, from D minor to D major, from glistening harmonics that seem already to steal from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder music of the future, to rambunctious ‘transcription’ of the second of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Yet, unlike those Mozart and Beethoven works, models for a Romantic journey from darkness to light, Mahler’s Naturlaut in a forest-world of trees and birds – listen for the clarinet cuckoo – is prior to, or beyond, our experience: a Caspar David Friedrich landscape, without its solitary human hero. Harmonics were not, however, part of Mahler’s initial conception, but rather a revision, such as he always made, in the light of performance: in this case, following the 1889 Budapest premiere, at which, he wrote, the music had ‘sounded far too substantial for the shimmering and glimmering of the air I had in mind’. Alienation from nature required, in the first place, alienation from society – and, of course, an astounding technical command of harmony, orchestral colour and blend, pulse (or lack thereof), and space, so that fanfares from without can register without truly disturbing.

The first movement ‘proper’, at least to conventional sonata-form understanding, is perhaps surprisingly focussed upon this single and singular material; as Mozart before him, Mahler knows very well when something approaching monothematicism will counter trademark melodic profusion. We are now in the human world, that human presence called forth, in Julian Johnson’s words, ‘literally […] from the absence defined by the introduction’. Contrast between this block – in an almost Brucknerian sense – of material and that of the introduction is more the driving force of this movement than ‘traditional’ symphonism, if indeed such a thing still existed. In its initial five-movement form – a serenading ‘Blumine’ second movement, rediscovered by Donald Mitchell in 1966, was eventually discarded in the light of harsh criticism – Mahler spoke of a ‘symphonic poem’ and, in cumbersome nomenclature of Wagnerian proportions, a ‘tone poem in form of a symphony’. Such apparent hybrids were very much the province of Wagner’s ‘New German’ confrères Berlioz and Liszt too, yet very much opposed by self-appointed guardians of the Classical flame such as Eduard Hanslick (allegedly on behalf of Brahms). Perhaps it was as well, then, that the Symphony did not reach Vienna until 1900, four years after initial conversion into four movements.

The A major second movement is a Ländler, never quite as expected, the Mahlerian subject, whoever that may be, alienated already, though we know not yet – shall we ever? – from what. Material from his early song ‘Hans und Grethe’, later orchestrated by Berio, is ‘transcribed’, glorying in rusticity and/or its parody. As traditional for a scherzo, whether in duple, triple (as here) or any other metre, the Trio relaxes; what Mahler would instinctively have applied to Mozart or Beethoven is here written in and thus slightly exaggerated: ‘recht gemächlich’ (rather leisurely). We often, rightly, tend to think of Bruckner and Mahler as mutually opposed, not least given their radically different approaches to orchestration. Here, once again, however, there is a sign of ‘Austrian’ kinship, extending back, at least as far as Schubert.

A ghostly D minor version of the folksong ‘Bruder Martin’ (perhaps more widely known as ‘Frère Jacques’) takes the woodland wonder of Mendelssohn’s Ein Sommernachtstraum funeral march to disconcerting, downright bizarre extremes. Solo double bass, muted, straining at the top of its register, initiates a canonic processional, first involving other bass instruments (bassoon, cellos and tuba), supplemented by a growing throng, until rudely interrupted by a Bohemian klezmer band to rival anything ‘transcribed’ by Berio. Mahler’s craft is anything but vulgar; this is knowing depiction, a contest of material and of worlds, complicated by another unprepared move to G major, now for the Schubertian linden tree of another Gesellen song. The deathly marionettes, the bitter irony, the clashes and vistas of later Mahler symphonies: all are here in more than embryo in this astonishing movement.

The Finale explodes onto the scene, not unlike the Symphony as a whole. Most of the material with which Mahler will construct the battle to come is heard in quick succession, as if newly emboldened characters drawn from the observers of that march (a snatch from absent ‘Blumine’ included). D major is here to triumph, but not quite yet. A notably ‘feminine’, even Tchaikovsky-like second theme in D flat major, ‘sehr gesangvoll’ (very songful), has a ‘mystical stillness’ to its lengthy violin cantilena that, as De La Grange points out, ‘is also intensely Mahlerian’. Distance from the opening material is retrospectively sanctioned by exclusion from the development until its close, heralding a recapitulation that has mystified many, some even decrying empty repetition. Listen, however, to this violent, ultimately humanistic drama – having left behind the first movement introduction forever – with the ‘New German School’ in mind, and you will hear an unabashed symphonic drama, albeit not as the world yet knew it.

(This essay was first published in a 2019 Salzburg Festival programme for performances by Antoine Tamestit, the ORF RSO Vienna, and Jonathan Nott.)

Suspended Songs of Suffering: Gesualdo, Rihm, Nono

Transalpine Tendencies

To view the relationship between Italian and German music as the fundamental driving force of modern Western musical history would be a gross oversimplification. However, in Salzburg of all places, ‘the Rome of the North’, it is a temptation that might be forgiven. It was here, after all, not long after the original 1608 premiere, that Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo received its first performances outside Italy, at more or less the same time as the foundation stone was laid for the new Cathedral (in 1614). Salzburg’s crucial importance as a staging post for the northward progress of the Italian Baroque, architectural and musical, renders it an especially apt home for this concert, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s Kollegienkirche, built between 1694 and 1707, in turn an especially apt venue, steeped in the tradition of Francesco Borromini and Gianlorenzo Bernini. Yet, just as we should rightly cavil at speaking of the Salzburg of the 17th or 18th centuries as ‘Austrian’ – ‘German’ is closer to the mark, if still misleading – so should we be wary of straightforwardly ascribing ‘Italian’ status to the southern culture from which many of its treasures had sprung.

Kollegienkirche, this summer

Gesualdo’s Pardon

Stepping back another century, we might ask how meaningful it is to call Carlo Gesualdo an ‘Italian’ composer. It is perhaps inevitable that we should do so with hindsight. So long as we are clear that Renaissance Italy had little conception of nationhood comparable to our own, it will do no harm. Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, Gesualdo came from the south, from the Kingdom of Naples, although he also spent time in Ferrara and Rome. By the time Gesualdo came to write his late Tenebrae Responsories, however, he was largely a recluse, confined to his estate in ‘melancholy’. It was Gesualdo’s uncle, Cardinal Carlo (St Charles) Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, who had suggested in Gesualdo’s youth that sacred music might be written in a less conservative, more madrigalian fashion. Borromeo increasingly became an object of veneration for Gesualdo. A 1609 altarpiece commissioned from Giovanni Balducci for the Capuchin church on the Gesualdo estate, Santa Maria delle Grazie, brings together in sacra conversazione Borromeo (canonized the following year), Gesualdo, his second wife Leonora and their dead son’s purified soul. 1611 saw publication of his Tenebrae Responsories, written with private performance in mind beneath that image: Il perdono di Gesualdo.

There is something especially intimate to these 27 motets, from which we shall hear but four: intimate in their relative emotionalism, far more readily associated with single motets than with such collections. Counter-Reformation Italy heard many such settings of combined offices of Matins and Lauds for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday: the ‘triduum sacrum’, heard in the dark shadow, ‘in tenebris’, of their preceding evenings. Laden with grief, Gesualdo’s expression – anachronistically, ‘expressionism’ – is less exaggerated in these six-voice settings than in his more overtly experimental madrigals, yet perhaps more distilled, more integrated, such has often tended to be the way with music for the church. It is difficult, however, and perhaps impossible, even undesirable, to dissociate the travails of Gesualdo’s life and suffering entirely from their style and content. Suffering, betrayal, agony here seem both present and sublimated: a musical act of contrition to accompany, even to intensify, the scene in the altarpiece above.

Gesualdo Beyond the Grave

Varieties of Gesualdo’s notoriety, be it autobiographical or musical, have by now been rendered more or less indistinguishable. Aristocratic licence – Gesualdo had no need of a patron – helps provide some connection for the composer perhaps still known best for having murdered his first wife and her lover in flagrante. We should probably concede that, whether we like it or not, our Gesualdo, as man, composer, or both, is in many ways a different figure from the Gesualdo of his own time. There is nothing wrong with that; we might speak similarly of any artist of the past, from Machaut to Webern and beyond. At any rate, the Gesualdo of scandals personal and artistic has inspired many composers since his 20th-century rediscovery: among them, Peter Warlock, Igor Stravinsky, Peter Maxwell Davies, Alfred Schnittke, Salvatore Sciarrino, Georg Friedrich Haas and Hilda Parades. Rihm’s Seven Passion Texts (2001–6, later published with instrumental interludes as Vigilia) takes its place in this tradition: knowing, intentional response to Gesualdo’s responsories, likewise for six voices.

Speaking with God

Gianni Vattimo

Rihm described himself in 2006 as ‘one who does not pray, but speaks with God’, and has turned to setting sacred texts increasingly since the Millennium. He also, not uncommonly among artists, had childhood dreams of the priesthood. Composer Peter Bannister has enlighteningly compared Rihm to the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, a writer with strong Marxist and Roman Catholic strands to his thinking. Bannister asks whether Rihm’s ‘harmonic idiom in these pieces’ may be heard analogously ‘to Vattimo’s “weak thought”’, the thought of a ‘self-confessed “half-believer”’, in that ‘his language suggests directionality and simultaneously subverts it at every stage, hinting at “strong structures” but scrupulously avoiding them’. There is certainly reference as well as affinity to be found in these motets to the glories of polyphony. As often with Rihm, there are tonal affinities too, sometimes more oblique than others. Even at their strongest, though, as perhaps in ‘Tristis est anima mea’, one would never mistake them for the once-fashionable ‘spirituality’ of so-called ‘holy minimalism’.

This is not the fervent belief of a Messiaen, perhaps not belief at all, but it is of a piece with Rihm’s ongoing fascination with music and practices of the past. To quote Edward Campbell, Rihm has ‘no compunction in juxtaposing music […] flagrantly modernist in aesthetic alongside passages that cut deeply into the DNA of the German Romantic tradition’. Here, another tradition too, albeit seen and heard through a Romantic-modernist prism. For Rihm, moreover, the Holocaust inevitably casts a particular, as well as universal shadow, over tales and rites of suffering. In his Deus Passus, written for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in 2000, his new St Luke Passion came strikingly to an unfulfilled close with Paul Celan’s poem Tenebrae. That may surely be felt here in a chromaticism unfulfilled because it cannot be.

Music of Resistance and Liberation

Rihm has freely acknowledged the importance of Luigi Nono for his music too, helping – as so often in the dialectic between German and Italian music – impart a clarity of line often welcome among the thickets of German post-expressionism. The kinship between Nono’s and Rihm’s Hölderlin fragments is clear to all, but Nono’s importance as ‘a model I cherish’ has clearly been broader, Rihm going so far as to call Nono ‘the prototypical artist, searching and failing, extremely secure and extremely insecure’, calling particular attention to the ‘ecstasy’ of Nono’s ‘sound language’.

Image: Archivio Luigi Nono

A Venetian by birth, in 1924, and death, in 1990, Nono evinced considerable interest in early ‘Italian’, often Venetian, music; his final music drama, Prometeo, often conjuring up the impression of a marriage between Marx and Palestrina and other late polyphonists, Gesualdo included, mediated by Walter Benjamin and Nono’s librettist, Massimo Cacciari. For, as Nono’s friend and colleague Claudio Abbado attested, Nono ‘never lost the deep-rooted ties to the long tradition of Venetian music […] Gigi’s sense of an espressivo or cantabile line also stems from this tradition’. Nono’s studies at the Venice Conservatory with Gian Francesco Malipiero had encompassed study of earlier traditions. Sheer delight in vocal writing and the potential of the human voice, would inform Nono’s work throughout his life, nowhere more so than in the 1955–6 cantata Il canto sospeso. Nono would recall in 1973 that Malipiero had been:

A lovingly concerned master, as I learned when he took me as a pupil during the bestial rule of fascism (from 1943 to 1945) and in his courses and seminars opened the door to study and knowledge of music which at that time lay prohibited in Italy: Schoenberg, Webern, also Dallapiccola, and naturally Monteverdi and the music of the Italian Renaissance.

This setting of texts from European resistance fighters unites all such strands, Il canto sospeso being, again to quote Abbado, ‘music born of deep dismay, painful and accusing’. Every work, for Nono, required what he called ‘a human “provocation”: an event, an experience, a test in our lives, which provokes my instinct and my consciousness, as man and musician, to bear witness’. Each of the texts we hear offers testimony from a resistance fighter shortly to be killed by the Nazis. There is here a glowing post-Romanticism: painful, even agonizing, in its beauty, nowhere more so than in the sixth movement, when, after what we may think of as a choral Dies irae without end – remembrance of Esther Srul, a victim of Operation Barbarossa – orchestral music beguiles perhaps all too readily. Words, witness, their horror nonetheless continue to resist their aestheticization. The Webern-like tenor aria-with-ensemble in which we hear from Chaim, a 14-year-old Jew from Galicia, or the ravishing melismatic writing for soprano in particular, suggest promise that cannot, should not, be fulfilled. We await, wish for reconciliation, even benediction, but know, with Nono – as, with Rihm, perhaps even with Gesualdo – that it will not, cannot happen. For the ‘wedge’ quality to Nono’s 12-note row, intervals gradually broadening out – heard in linear fashion for the first time in the fourth movement – recalls certain Bach fugues, but also, tellingly here, Dallapiccola’s beacon of (false) hope in his anti-fascist opera Il prigioniero. We must hope, even if we have few grounds for doing so.

That said, words find themselves liberated from the tyranny of expectations. Broken down into constituent parts, as well as savoured melismatically, there is music to be experienced here that goes beyond the serial parameters of pitch, duration, timbre, dynamics, and so on. Nono’s point here was not, as his fellow avant-gardist Stockhausen believed, to divest the text of meaning; it was not ‘to withdraw it from the public eye where it has no place’. In his 1960 Darmstadt lecture, Text – Musik – Gesang, as transcribed by his pupil Helmut Lachenmann, Nono explicitly took issue with that very claim, having looked at Schubert, Monteverdi, Schoenberg, Bach, Gabrieli and others, proceeding to relish one particular an instance of Gesualdo’s madrigal word-setting – the word ‘splende’ in Il sol, qual or più splende – as a presentiment of his own: sounds verbal, phonetic, and musical created a ‘pluridimensional whole’, a counterpoint of sounds in musical declamation.

‘The final unity’ for Nono nonetheless remained in words rather than syllables or parts thereof. In a sense, it is the old controversy concerning polyphony and verbal comprehension, familiar to all students of Palestrina and the Council of Trent (or of Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina). Some controversies, quite rightly, never die, not least those in the endlessly fascinating relationships – however understood or misunderstood, however constructed or deconstructed – between German, Italian and countless other musics, between the art and thought of other times and our own.

(This essay was first published in a 2019 Salzburg Festival programme for a concert from the SWR Vokalensemble, SWR SO, Marcus Creed, and Peter Rundel.)

Thursday 29 August 2019

Mourning, Variation, Transcription, Completion: Piano Works by Liszt and Busoni

Many of Liszt’s works have complex, protracted geneses. Rather than chisel away in furious, even obsessive, self-criticism like Brahms, working his way toward a final, perfected version – there are exceptions – Liszt tended to move on, sometimes furnishing several, competing versions of an ‘original’ work. In addition, there are, of course, arrangements, transcriptions, paraphrases, and much in between, often again in more than one version. Not all of Liszt’s works – nor Busoni’s, following closely in the footsteps of his great pianist-composer predecessor – are works in progress. Even when not, though, we can sense a restless tendency, something moreover of an improvisatory, experimental beginning, with or without closure.

A Father’s Grief

The origins and ‘poetic idea’ of Liszt’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen Variations are autobiographical. Liszt’s daughter Blandine had died on 11 September 1862; at the end of that month, his son-in-law Émile Ollivier travelled from Saint-Tropez to Rome to inform Liszt of her last days. In response, Liszt penned a series of 48 variations on the ground bass from the opening movement of Bach’s 1714 cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen BWV 12, also familiar from Bach’s own recycling in the ‘Crucifixus’ of the Mass in B minor. A chromatically descending line furnishes Liszt, as it had Bach, with plenty of scope for what Schoenberg would christen ‘developing variation’.

However, Liszt, following and extending Beethoven’s example as composer of variations, begins in a different key, D flat major. Typically crashing chords make their way to the tonic, F minor, long a key of mourning for Liszt, through the offices of an anguish that borders upon mental collapse. Sovereign command of his instrument enables Liszt to coax, to compel, even to coerce the piano to join him, Bach and the listener in the weeping, lamenting, sorrowing and fearing that combine in mourning. First introspective, relatively strict in its contrapuntal homage to Bach, then broadening out until it brings the very idea of variation under Mephistophelian attack, the work’s progress might be understood to mirror that of Liszt confronting the death of a second child – his son, Daniel, had died less than three years earlier. Several years of a process yet to be concluded are condensed into a grand sweep that is musico-dramatic in an almost Wagnerian sense.

Arioso tendencies certainly inform the spirit and progress of the 48 variations, negating the letter and yet ultimately reinstating the spirit of Bach’s passacaglia. Telescoping Bach’s plan in his cantata as a whole, Liszt reaches the Lutheran chorale in F major, ‘Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan’ (What God does, that is well done). Or is it? Such affirmation attempts to proffer retrospective meaning on the search, the struggle, the soul bearing of the work as a whole. The Abbé Liszt nods assent as he must, even in grief. He adds the words of the hymn above: plain and unanswerable. Chromatic daemons nonetheless work to undermine it before the close; if their success is not unambiguous, the major mode of the ending is scarcely affirmative, the insistence upon the final tonic chord weary in alleged triumph.

Tears at the Heart of Things

Mourning as unending process is again the subject of the next piece, written in 1872, later published as part of the third book (of 1883) of the Années de pèlerinage: ‘En Priamus. Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’. Even for a poem, Virgil’s Aeneid, hardly lacking in scholarly, artistic, all manner of attention, these words have been considered exhaustively. Having come upon a Carthaginian temple dedicated to Juno, its walls decorated with scenes from the Trojan War that had turned his and his men’s lives upside down as refugees, Aeneas exclaims to (the memory of) his father, Priam: ‘there are tears at the heart of things’ (according to Seamus Heaney’s translation). A 19th-century artist as pluralistic in national and cosmopolitan identity and thus as homeless as any – in a state of permanent pèlerinage – Liszt knew this well. His subtitle renders the general claim particular: ‘en mode hongrois’ (in the Hungarian style).

This is no divertissement, though ‘gypsy’ or ‘Magyar’ – for Liszt, the two were more readily interchangeable than for his more ethnomusicologically minded successors, such as Bartók.  As in the 1849 ‘Funérailles’ from his Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses, an angry elegy for the Hungarian Revolution crushed that year by the Habsburgs, Liszt, like Aeneas, remembers his comrades. This piece shares the growling low register of that earlier work, the obsession with unstable, even brutal augmented seconds; it shares its rhythmic and harmonic defiance too, its refusal to be cowed. Themes, intervals, progressions, gestures which one might hear as anticipatory modernist in the throes of, say, the Piano Sonata in B minor are now found in isolated, even distilled form, the essence of an almost responsorial music. For this is a work of Liszt’s old age, a gateway to a world of further elegies and threnodies, of embittered near atonality: seraphic in transcendence, yet also, far more clearly than the Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen Variations, dejected in temporal contemplation. Liszt’s utterances remain Janus-faced, similarly refined glances to the world of his first book of pilgrimages, reminding us of a Romantic world that he and his people – real or imaginary – cannot, will not, relinquish.

Day of Judgement

Another day ‘full of tears’ is the Day of Judgement: certainly, according to the Lacrimosa of the Requiem Mass. No setting is more celebrated than Mozart’s, not only on account of the manuscript breaking off, with almost unbearable Romantic poignancy, just eight bars in, the life of our misunderstood, suffering (allegedly) genius cruelly cut short, yet still more so on account of its musical quality. Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s completion has never seriously been challenged, the ‘scraps of paper’ given him by Mozart’s widow, Constanze, having clearly offered expert guidance. The D minor pathos, perfectly judged harmonically and rhythmically – rocking metre and rests of equal importance here – could hardly have failed to appeal to Liszt. He chose this and the Confutatis to transcribe for piano, his work here respectful, restrained, in no sense a paraphrase such as the Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine – based on Mozart’s Ave verum corpus and Allegri’s Miserere – penned on the same 1860s visit to Rome. It is not difficult to imagine him warming to the legend that this movement was sung at Mozart’s death bed; hearing or playing this 19th-century homage, it is not difficult for us to warm to that legend too.

Liszt and Busoni

More neglected still as a composer than Liszt, Busoni would have understood only too well Liszt’s pessimism concerning performance of his later works. Liszt had gone even so far as to forbid, at least strongly to counsel against, performance, fearing it would harm his pupils’ careers and elicit further hostile criticism. At any rate, Liszt proved a crucial forerunner, example and inspiration to Busoni throughout his life and career – as, of course, did Bach. Busoni suffered personally and vicariously for his Lisztian advocacy, a clueless London critic for The Times lamenting of a February 1913 visit to the Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall, which included the Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen Variations: 
There are many people who regret that a great pianist whom they otherwise want to hear should spend the afternoon playing Liszt, and the regret is intelligible enough. But if a whole programme of Liszt is to the played at all, probably everyone would agree that there is no pianist so able to hold the attention through it and give pleasure at the same time. 
In grudging concession, the anonymous critic owned that:
[Many] must have realized in listening merely to the Variations on Bach’s theme […] that the most advanced technique discovered, one may say, by Liszt and pushed to the point to which Signor Busoni has brought it, is capable of making the pianoforte express new ideas and a new kind of beauty (with the corollary that there may be new kinds of vulgarity).

Performance as Transcription

Onwards and upwards, then, to Busoni’s ultimate reckoning with Bach, via Liszt’s example as transcriber, composer, tireless advocate: the Fantasia contrappuntistica, its D minor tonality provided by Bach, though it follows nicely here from Liszt’s Mozart transcription. The Fantasia grew out of Busoni’s work on a critical edition of Die Kunst der Fuge. His friend, Bernard Ziehn, composer and music theorist, persuaded him that the trick to completing Bach’s final, quadruple fugue was to understand that the missing subject was in fact the principal theme to the work as a whole, offering obvious cyclical unity. Busoni set to work, initially on a ‘Grosse Fuge’ – ‘it will be like something between C. Franck and the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, but with an individual nuance’ – which was almost immediately expanded into the work we know today. In homage to Bach, the master of the organ chorale prelude, the work opens with variations on ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her’ – essentially an expansion and revision of the third of Busoni’s piano elegies.

Three fugues arise from its ashes, by way of a lovely three-part invention, ‘intimamente e indugiando’. Drawing upon scholarship and imagination, transcription and composition, something both old and new is created, tracing Bach’s lines to what Busoni considered to be their provisional – there could surely never be an ultimate – conclusion. And so, an intermezzo, haunted, like much of the rest of the score by the monogram, ‘B–A–C–H’, has its own material transmuted into a series of three variations, cadenza and a further transition – in a strong sense, the work is entirely transition – into the fourth fugue. It triumphantly, yet not without chromatic dissent, reinstates D minor, furious in the enormity of its necessarily unsuccessful attempt to ‘complete’ Bach. Reimagination of the opening chorale – comparison and contrast with Liszt are equally valid – and a concluding, climactic stretta prepare a close as climactic and, in retrospect, if not in the moment, as open-ended as we might hope.

It is on the grandest scale, if not of the Piano Concerto’s duration (roughly 70 minutes), then aspiring to it and conceived as a magnum opus of similar vein. An extraordinary Berlin concert of 1912 offered both, with the Fantasia in an orchestration by Frederick Stock and the exquisite orchestral miniature – at least by comparison – Berceuse élégiaque in between. We might also think of the composer’s – ironically, perhaps necessarily – incomplete opera as summa: Doktor Faust. Ideas, expressed conceptually and emotionally, of transcription and variation remain public and private. Let us grant Busoni the final say:

Every notation is itself the transcription of an abstract idea. The instant the pen seizes it, the idea loses its original form. The very intention to write down the idea compels a choice of measure and key. [...] Again the performance of a work is also a transcription. Whatever liberties it may take it can never annihilate the original. [...] So the arrangement is not good, because it varies the original; and the variation is good, although it “arranges” the original.

(This essay was originally published as a programme note for a 2019 Salzburg Festival recital by Igor Levit.)