Georg Friedrich Haas’s piece in vain has achieved a minor cult status since its first outing in the opening years of the century, and it received glowing reviews for its London première in 2013. Unsurprisingly, Thursday’s performance by the London Sinfonietta under Brad Lubman at the Festival Hall was well attended.
It’s a piece that you want to get annoyed about – it’s surrounded by hype, and there’s more than a touch of musical elitism about it: the composer’s note is full of intellectual language about microtones and existentialism. But it has a strange way of getting to you, and by the end of its 70 minutes, you end up by being impressed and, although not exactly moved, certainly pleasantly provoked.
Although the work has structure (and the mathematics of its composition are complex), the experience is one of hearing a piece of abstract expressionism. It’s all about colour and texture – the composer playing with different timbres from the 24 players (instruments include a bass flute saxophones and a gong) that are echoed and riffed across the stage. Yes, it is a spectral piece – using microtones along with conventional harmonies – but in reality, this simply leads to some interesting note clusters with odd resultant beats about them, as well as swooshy glissandi. One moment there will be thin string-led note clusters interspersed with twanging de-tuned-harp chords, the next, bold brass statements that transition (with the addition of other instruments) from Wagner to Boulez – or a glistening set of overlapping tinkling descending whole-tone scales from piano, winds and tuned percussion that bring to mind a shoal of glistening fish moving as one organism. Haas also plays with rhythm, and is fond of ostinato lines whose pulses either speed up or slow down like the decaying bounce of a rubber ball.
Occasionally the lights go out. This is deliberate, and part of the piece’s ‘statement’ (it was written in response to the rise of the far-right in Austria in 1999, although how the music portrays this is not exactly clear; in many ways, it is better for the listener simply to hear the piece as an abstract concept, allowing a more personal set of images to be conjured). This effect adds some extra dimension: the lengthier of the periods involves a single light occasionally flashing on and gradually dimming, at the same time as the strings play a series of rising glissandi, so two of the audience’s senses are moving in opposite directions – and the increasing frequency of this combination augments the sensory displacement. In the earlier, shorter, period of darkness, instruments echo the same note or chord from different parts of the stage, the absence of light focusing the audience’s attention on where sound is coming from. Certainly, musical points are made by this multi-sensory experience, but it can occasionally get a little whales-in-the-fog.
Lubman’s direction was sure and clear, and the players of the London Sinfonietta were in fine form (although Haas’ requirements for cold-start pianissimo brass notes clearly presented challenges on occasion), and deserved all the applause they received, not least for their ability to memorize the sections of the piece played in total darkness.