When you wake up in the middle of the night thinking theres an intruder in the house your ears agonise and reach out into the pitch-dark silence. Thats the only way to listen to the music of Helmut Lachenmann. He puts you in that kind of danger.
In his String Quartet No. 1 (played with customary panache by the Arditti Quartet) the music is so delicate and exquisite that it transports the audience to that midnight-listening where sounds are unbearably fragile and the quietest pizzicato rages out to violent effect.
The music of the quartet has much in common with the sound-world of music concrte with its harsh juxtapositions and rabid, frantic ejaculations but since the sounds in this case are produced by acoustic instruments, (as opposed to by electronic means) there is something wildly exciting about it.
The next quartet (String Quartet No. 3) was very different, mainly because it contained actual notes. The wrenching, curdling noises made by near-abuse of the instruments was still there, but more obvious formal sections of lunging, shadowy throbbings made this a more linear experience.
In an interview just before the piano performance Lachenmann told Ivan Hewitt I dont play a tune on the piano, I play the piano on a tune, which could have been just a glib pun, but it turned out to be entirely true, as the resonance of the piano seemed to make the notes disappear, leaving only pure sound jutting out at false perspectives as he took to the piano to play some of his own, deceptively simple pieces. The performance was more like a physics demonstration than a classical recital, as Lachenmann produced amazing sonic effects such as phasing and pitch-bending without the aid of any devices or electronics.
Solo pieces for cello and violin were like private sketches detailing every extended technique imaginable for future use in larger scale works, but with physical gestures moving too far into the realm of theatricality, they bordered on self-parody, and didnt cohere nearly as much as the quartets.
Brad Lubman conducted an enlarged London Sinfonietta for Schreiben, Lachenmanns most impressive masterpiece. Fantastic performances from every member of the orchestra combined to produce a gigantic mystical swamp of veiled, soft-focus backdrops colliding with vivid, sharply detailed close-up shots.
More anxious and fractured was the 50-minute piano non-concerto Ausklang. It lacked the momentum of Schreiben, but with Rolf Hind slapping his piano about like a big bully this was a tour de force that well deserved the longest standing ovation Ive ever seen at the Royal Festival Hall.
Further details of Southbank Centre concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk