Concert Reviews

Views from across the water

November 1, 2007

Its been a while since I attended a concert at any of the South Bank Centre venues. Their treatment of the LMC and other small, more experimental promoters a few years back put me off and my attendance at three concerts from their Luigi Nono – Fragments of Venice season this last couple of weeks has been through gritted teeth, but the performances were a little too good to miss.

First up a fortnight ago I attended a performance by the Arditti String Quartet at The Queen Elizabeth Hall. I had to really rush to get to the hall in time for the show, having caught a later train into London than I had planned, and it was whilst puffing and panting with sweat running down my forehead that I made it to the venue just a few minutes before the musicians took the stage. It was only once I was in place in my seat, working on slowing down the palpitations that I realised just how alien my surroundings had become. I’d been shown to my seat by an usher who tried to sell me a couple of folded sheets of paper for £2.50 and looking around even though the hall was only half full there were more people here than at even the biggest festivals I’d been to this year. Yet much of the music I had come to hear tonight wasn’t so far removed from other performances I’d seen recently. Its amazing what the association of a “legitimate” organisation like the SBC can do.

The programme began with a performance of Webern’s Six Bagatelles. I’ve listened a lot to these six short pieces this year and they were a nice way to open the evening. Totalling under five minutes I had barely caught my breath before they were over, but the rendition seemed great, perhaps slightly slower than the recorded version I have (by the Schoenberg Quartet) but that could just be my imagination.

This was followed by the main event of the evening (for me at least) and a performance of Luigi Nono’s string quartet Fragmente – Stille. I’ve come to love the Arditti’s recording of this music on the Montaigne label a great deal, so hearing it live was a special treat. The music is quiet, full of silence broken up by small, shadowy moments, indeed fragments of intense beauty, softly played small phrases that are not allowed to develop beyond a few seconds and separated by pauses that bring a charged expectancy to the piece. I’ve always found the recorded version a captivating work that drags you in, demanding your full attention whether you wanted to give it or not, and tonight I have no idea where the 35 minutes went to with this performance, although the music seemed to hang suspended in the air I was amazed how fast time flew by.

Whilst never removing the innate politics of his earlier work, by 1980 when he wrote Fragmente – Stille Nono had shifted his focus more towards an investigation of sound itself and its relationship to the silence surrounding it. This, his only string quartet is possibly the purest embodiment of this later interest.

It was a joy to witness this delicate composition unravel in front of me. Although the membership of the Arditti Quartet has changed significantly since the Montaigne recording the level of concentrated understanding of the music was obvious. Whilst I find it really hard to critically compare a performance of composed music like this to a recording I do know that the ability to watch the music carved out by the musicians in a live setting brought new insight in the music to me. Sections I had thought to be played by single instruments turned out to be combinations of more than one musician playing, the individual contributions of each musician so much more apparent here than on a CD. I was sat very near the front of the large hall for this performance and I’m pleased about this, as I can’t imagine the quiet, fragile music travelling too well to the back rows. As it was, where I was sat I caught every moment, every swoop of a bow, every intense frown of a musician and the decay of each sound as it escaped high into the hall. I enjoyed this so so much.

Following an interval spent queuing for a drink that I never managed to get due to woefully inadequate barstaff numbers (get it together SBC…) there came a performance of Schoenberg’s second String Quartet, with the addition of Claron McFadden’s soprano. It felt strange following the Nono quartet with this, almost as if the evening had been put together in the wrong order. The piece is in four movements, the last two of which include the soprano part. Schoenberg wrote this music at a troubled time in his life, when his wife was having an affair, and its a richly romantic, occasionally melodic piece. It is said that Schoenberg’s first attempts at atonal composition appear in the fourth movement here, the first three all being tonal. I’d never heard this composition on CD before, but having read up on it I awaited the fourth movement with anticipation to see if I could hear a significant difference. Whilst maybe not something I would have picked up on without prior knowledge the fourth movement did sound different, slightly more abrasive and expansive. I have to say that I didn’t enjoy the addition of the vocal parts however. They seemed to overpower the intimacy of the small chamber group, causing me to somehow listen differently, trying to follow the words rather than absorb the patterns formed between the four musicians. Mcfadden did nothing wrong, I guess I just prefer string quartets without vocals.

One week later I returned to the same venue to attend two concerts, one following the other in the same hall. Arriving earlier this time I grabbed a bite to eat at a noodle bar nearby as I refused to pay the £5 asking price the South Bank placed on a chicken salad roll. (Is my contempt for the SBC obvious enough by now?!)

Tonight the Queen Elizabeth Hall was full for the first concert of the evening, with probably around 1000 people of whom I recognised about half a dozen. Given that tonight’s performances bore an even closer relationship to many of the other concerts I attend I found myself wondering just who are all these people, and why will they attend the South Bank on a Wednesday night but not the Red Rose Club? OK, so that may not have been the best comparison to make, but the question is a valid one.

One good answer I guess may have been that the music for this concert was excellent. From start to finish. The first half of the concert featured performances by the pianist and close friend of Lugi Nono, Maurizio Pollini. Before he even touched the keys Pollini appeared moved by the music, swaying in his seat a little before beginning, tension written across his face, with a rendition of Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano.

Pollini seemed completely at home with this music. He played without a score, flowing naturally through the brief pieces. He followed with Six little pieces for piano, a series of vignettes by Schoenberg that I had paid only passing attention to the before this evening. Pollini’s passion poured new life into the music, his playing charged by many years of living closely with it. The last of the six, a restful, almost Feldmanesque miniature written just after the death of Schoenberg’s close friend and inspiration Gustav Mahler was particularly resonant. Based around a single romantic chord and ending with deep booming chimes at the base of the piano’s register this tiny piece hung in the air as Pollini brought it to an end, almost collapsing across the keys as he did so.

Following the obligatory applause routines (classical musicians must stay really fit with all that walking on and off of the stage) Pollini was joined by the clarinet of Alain Damiens to play Alban Berg’s Four pieces for clarinet and piano. Berg’s chamber music has been a recent infatuation of mine, its simple lyrical beauty seems to balance the romantic richness of Mahler with the relentlessly investigative spirit of his teacher Schoenberg. I was not familiar with these brief pieces before hearing them played live though, but this first impression was very favourable, the music seemed quite minimal in comparison with other Berg compositions of that time I am more familiar with, suggestively melodic yet actually only revealing small parts of a tune here and there. The spirit of Schoenberg shone through the most though, this piece followed on from the night’s earlier piano pieces seamlessly.

Pollini brought his contribution to the evening to a close with a rendition of the piece that Nono wrote with his assistance back in 1977, the curiously titled …sofferte onde serene… The nearest translation appears to be something like …serene waves suffering… which could suggest a link to Nono’s home of Venice, a city that left a considerable imprint on the composer’s work.

The composition is incredibly complicated and places great demands on the pianist. It is the first work that Nono wrote that pitched a live musician against a tape of his same instrument. Nono recorded Pollini back in ’77 and this performance saw the pianist effectively duetting with his younger self as the piece requires the musician to weave beautiful yet complex figures around the mirror image of the piano projected live from the tape, engineered here by Nono collaborator and expert sound engineer André Richard. (although ironically the original tape part now exists as a Logic software file running on a laptop…)

…sofferte is a beautiful work that plays with the naturally soft sound of the piano and uses the tape to reflect a gimmering shadow of the music into the hall for Pollini to play the brighter, more immediate live notes over the top. Despite his involvement in the composition of the fourteen minute piece and his subsequent multiple performances of it over the ensuing years Pollini sat closely following the written score here, testament to both the work’s complexity and the pianist’s desire to remain faithful to the score when it could be easy to wander off behind the tape projection.

I had watched a film of Pollini playing this work as a bonus feature at the end of the excellent DVD documentary about the friendship between Nono, Pollini and the conductor Claudio Abbado called A Trail on the Water. On recordings it is difficult to tell the live and tape channels apart but witnessing the mass of notes merging together live in the hall it was easy to tell the difference, and this slight contrast between the notes added a sense of density to the performance I hadn’t felt before. Fantastic music.

At the interval I wandered off outside and grabbed a quick coffee whilst leaning out over the Thames, lit by the lights of the City across the water. As I watched the multitude of lights flickering with their blurred reflection below, the music of …sofferte… was still with me. One of those nice little moments.

The second half of this first concert of the evening was equally inspiring, yet you couldn’t have portayed a more contrasting picture of Nono’s music to that from the first half if you tried. Before the main closing piece of the evening we were treated to a short song for solo soprano sung by Barbara Hannigan. The piece, entitled Djamila Boupacha comes fromNono’s 1962 Songs of life and love and tells the harrowing tale of Boupacha, an Algerian freedom fighter who was subjected to a terrible rape.

Despite not having a translation to hand on the evening the fraught emotional intensity of the song came through very clearly. In places the singing became almost wordless, Hannigan’s wrenching cries leaving the audience in stunned silence. This was about as pure an evocation of the trauma of mankind’s insanity as I’ve ever witnessed in a musical setting.

Hannigan returned to the stage as part of a larger group to perform Nono’s rarely heard work A floresta e jovem e cheja de vida (The Forest is Young and Full of Life) She was joined by a trio of vocalists, two female, one male whose part consisted more of chant than singing, Damien’s clarinet the Cologne Percussion Quartet, who stood behind impressive looking suspended sheets of metal which they attacked on cue with metal prongs and chains, and considerable tape (laptop) recordings overseen by Richard. The ensemble was conducted by the composer and Klangforum Wien founder Beat Furrer.

A floresta e jovem e cheja de vida was written by Nono in 1966 at the height of his overtly political period. The chants, that are captured on tape but also called live from the stage are selected from what Nono called “moments from the anti-imperialist struggle.” The words of Castro, Vietnamese fighters (the piece is dedicated to the Vietnamese National Liberation Front) and Italian factory workers are massed into a swarm of urgent, forceful voices, with Hannigan’s soprano and Damien’s clarinet used to layer continual tones that build the momentum and adrenalin up in the music.
At the music’s most powerful moments the percussionists attack the metal sheets with precisely coordinated strikes and abrasive rattles of the chains. The composition rose to these peaks of aggression and power several times, on each occasion the sheer anger of the music reflecting the fire of the chanted words.

Whilst projecting a firm and powerful political message with this extraordinary piece, Nono also understood how tiny and ineffective his contribution to the fight could be. Some of the clearest, most resounding chants come near the end of the piece, when the words of an American student protester calling “Is this all we can do?” turn the piece back on itself, questioning how much of an impact that art can really have on the injustices of the world.

This performance was mentally bruising as it was sonically appealing. The combination of tape, distressed metal and swarming voices gelled together into a gripping tumult of writhing sound that I found captivating and invigorating.
In the past I have said that I often dislike the overt application of politics to music simply because it has rarely resulted in music that I have found very enjoyable to listen to. My feelings on this subject have changed considerably since working my way through Nono’s output this last couple of years. One thing is for sure, this powerful, engaging music could not exist without its subject matter and driving force.

A while later at the same venue, after the hall had been emptied and refilled again with a new audience about half the size we were treated to a late evening performance of Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura for solo violin on tape and live solo violin, performed here by Irvine Arditti. In many ways La lontananza is similar to …sofferte… in that it investigates the possibilities of a musician performing alongside a recorded part. Nono worked with Gidon Kremer to make the original tapes who was the original performer of the piece that was again dedicated to him. However Irvine Arditti was later to work closely with Nono and recorded a wonderful version of the piece in 1991, just after the composer’s death.

La lontananza was the first Nono composition I heard, through a different version again made by Clemens Merkel for the Wandelweiser label. I enjoyed the piece so much that I ended up purchasing four or five different versions before going on to discover Nono’s wider body of work. Therefore this piece of music holds a special place for me, and hearing it performed live by someone as gifted as Arditti was always going to be a special moment.

Arditti used the size of the hall to its full potential, having set up six different music stands complete with score at various places in the hall, both on stage and off, in front of, deep amongst and way up behind the audience. As the tape of Kremer then played (André Richard again took control of “sound projection”) Arditti slowly moved from music stand to music stand, playing softly but assuredly. It was always just about possible to tell the recorded violin apart from the live playing, Kremer’s sound being slightly granier than Arditti’s deft touches, but on occasion, particularly when Arditti stood high up at the back of the elevated audience area and his actions couldn’t be seen, the two sets of sound became hard to tell apart.

The music of La lontananza is soft, slow and like Fragmente – Stille utilises silence as a fundamental part of the composition to separate small sections of violin, some on tape, others live, and often a combination of the two. Arditti and Richard made the most of the space in the music by extending it into three dimensions, using the vast hall as a compositional element. The playing was superb, Arditti’s longstanding involvement with the music abundantly clear. The fragile, lonely violin wove its way around the fragments of sound and folded into the tape parts with incredible poignancy, demanding complete silence from the appreciative audience.

I found this performance wonderful, rounding up an evening of inspirational music in superb fashion. These three concerts portrayed the range of Nono’s composition very well, the juxtaposition of the later quieter work with the politically charged passion of his late sixties composition was both jarring and illuminating at the same time. Adding the work of Nono’s influences in the Vienna school gave depth and context to the performances, as well as great enjoyment of the pieces themselves. The Nono season at the South Bank concludes next May with two performances of his final masterpiece Prometeo. I’ve pushed my dislike for the South Bank Centre to the back of my head for now as my ticket for this show sits proudly in my desk drawer and I’m counting down the weeks.

The two low-grade photos were taken with my camera phone. The first is a glimpse of the score to La Lontananza, the second taken during my moment looking across the Thames. I need a better quality camera phone…

Comments (7)

  • Jesse

    November 9, 2007 at 10:49 pm

    Nicely done, Richard.
    I haven’t had the opportunity to catch Arditti in performance. I love their recording of Fragmente. This is a quartet that owns many of the qualities I seek in music composed and improvised.

  • Richard Pinnell

    November 10, 2007 at 5:43 am

    Do you mean the ensemble or the composition there Jesse? I assume the latter?

  • Jesse

    November 10, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    That was a gnarly reference, Richard. I meant, as you surmised, the composition.

  • Richard Pinnell

    November 10, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    Sorry, i didn’t mean any offence Jesse, I genuinely wondered.

  • Jesse

    November 10, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    “Language is a virus from outer space” (William Burroughs).

    I didn’t mean your question was gnarly, Richard. I meant the last sentence in my first post was gnarly.

    You, otoh, are a gentleman, bringing civility and focus to bbs discussions. : )

    Sorry for the lack of clarity.

    Re: the Berg Lyric Suite, referenced elsewhere; I have only heard the Kronos reading of it. The Upshaw addendum intrigued me, and I find it an o.k. coda. Cannot compare it with another interpretation, however. I am not a big enough 12 tone/serial fan to do alot of compare/contrast investigations. I do intend on adding a couple of essential pieces to my Webern collection soon

  • Richard Pinnell

    November 11, 2007 at 2:30 am

    England and America are two countries separated by a common language.
    George Bernard Shaw


    Thanks Jesse.

    Why does the Upshaw Addendum sound like some dodgy spy novel to me?!

  • Anonymous

    December 5, 2007 at 7:49 am

    “I have to say that I didn’t enjoy the addition of the vocal parts however. They seemed to overpower the intimacy of the small chamber group, causing me to somehow listen differently, trying to follow the words rather than absorb the patterns formed between the four musicians. Mcfadden did nothing wrong, I guess I just prefer string quartets without vocals.”

    Then, you were victim of Schönberg intentions: give end to the string quartet as a strategy, and give end to tonality. Maybe you should check the Stefan Georg poem: they talk exactly of what you’re saying: overpowering. The vocals were put exactly to break the chamber intimacy.

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