Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Sound Across a Century @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

Two concerts from the London Sinfonietta chart ‘the sound across a century’. This first, led by Thierry Fischer, explores one tendril of the twentieth-century avant-garde: Spectralism, a movement that emerged from Pierre Boulez’s electronic music lab IRCAM in the 1970s and finds its progenitors in the dazzling soundscapes of Stockhausen, Ligeti, and Iannis Xenakis.

The spectral music of Gérard Grisey, and Tristan Murail would explode and reassemble sounds and pitches, looking for their inner timbral character and coloristic potential. But their project also rightly evokes the ghosts implied in its name, summoning otherworldly and fragile musical utterances which haunt our more everyday experiences of instrumental music. Musicologist Jonathan Cross elucidated the programme with history, analogy, and evocative detours into literature and the visual arts.

A 1920 arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune was the starting point. Cross suggested that Debussy liberates harmony from function and hierarchy in favour of colour and pleasure. The reduced forces here – three winds, solo strings, piano and harmonium – clarify and sharpen the work’s interleaving of its melodic lines and pulsing accompaniments. Altogether it has harder corners and gleams more brightly than the lusher orchestral presentation. The effect is startlingly cubist, especially because of the acidic single strings, dry warmth of the harmonium, and percussive piano emulating Debussy’s harp.

The musical edges continue to sharpen in Edgard Varèse’s Octandres. Varèse gives little quarter in summoning the harsh and metallic energies of modernity, even in a work that eschews his extravagant use of percussion in Amériques or Ionisation. Gérard Grisey’s Périodes (1974), for a small ensemble of strings, two winds, and trombones, produces peculiar spirals of sound that veer microtonally to find the strange sonorities between standard pitches and summoning flickering overtones. It is like a musical séance, with periods of intense response and violent exhalation. It even has an absurdist comic interlude between violinist and viola player, where the music appears to break down altogether into a childish prank of imitation.

Kaija Saariaho’s Oi Kuu (‘For the Moon’) explores the same territory, but with greater intuition and capriciousness. Scored for bass clarinet and ‘cello, her short duet takes their similarities in timbre and range as its premise: what results is a mysterious, even uncanny, weave of sonorities and textures. There are miraculous moments of mystery where each instrument becomes indistinguishable from the other in their game of mimicry and imitation; Timothy Lines’ whispered multiphonics – where the clarinet sounds the eerie overtones of a given note – echo ghostly ‘cello harmonics. By its conclusion we listen to these instruments with transformed ears.

Sofia Gubaildulina was not a disciple of musique spectral but the somnambulant drifts and accumulating, drifting sonic clouds of Concordanza certainly made her seem so. Fischer’s conducting gathered together its wisps of string and woodwind spirals until they thickened and disappeared; the woodwind and brass players whispered chattered, rather gothically, in its rather more unearthly and atmospheric moments.

Jonathan Harvey’s 2009 Sringara Chaconne closed us out. Harvey is fascinated by the modulating repetitions of mandalas, which marry well with the recursive variations of the baroque Chaconne. He makes lavish use of blooming, glowing timbres in the upper strings, flute, oboe, and clarinet, as well as glittering shards of sound from inside the piano lid. For a work that is variations on a ground bass there is relatively little low music. It emerges in a sonorous marriage of contrabass clarinet, bells, tam-tam, and double bass that loom from the texture as its other layers grow ever more frenetic; the piece ends with a flash of brilliance, brought off with élan by Thierry Fischer.

Throughout Fischer’s conducting was precise and unobtrusive; he sculpts the swells and exhalations of this music with remarkable precision. His hands worked with the fleet dexterity and punctiliousness redolent of Pierre Boulez.

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