Musikfest Berlin Offers a Timely Chance to Hear Nono’s Il canto sospeso



Musikfest Berlin [5] – Schumann, Andre, Marenzio, Vicentino, and Nono: Jörg Widmann (clarinet), Laura Aikin (soprano), Jenny Carlstedt (mezzo-soprano), Robin Tritschler (tenor), SWR Experimentalstudio, Michael Acker, Joachim Haas, and Sven Kestel (sound design), SWR Vocal Ensemble (chorus master: Michael Alber), SWR Symphony Orchestra / Peter Rundel (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 11.9.2017. (MB)

SchumannManfred, op.115: Overture
Mark Andreüber, for clarinet, orchestra, and live electronics
Luca Marenzio – Ninth Book of Madrigals: ‘Crudele, acerba, inesorabil morte’
Nicola Vicentino – Fifth Book of Madrigals: ‘L’aura che’l verde lauro et l’aureo crine’
NonoIl canto sospeso

A programme that promised much and, ultimately, ‘delivered’ – as they now say. The main attraction was Nono’s Il canto sospeso: one of the undisputed masterpieces of what I am still old-fashioned enough to call the post-war avant garde. I have been waiting twenty years or so to hear it ‘live’, since I first listened, astonished and terrified, to Claudio Abbado’s live Berlin recording: made, according to a declaration in the booklet note from Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, when ‘Germany … three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is once again in the grip of an increasing hatred of “foreigners”,’ when, across Europe, ‘nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism are once more on the increase’. The recording was ‘intended as a message on the part of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Claudio Abbado that we condemn all brutality and resurgent violence against people who think differently and that we do so from the very bottom of our hearts,’ Il canto sospeso being ‘music born of deep dismay, painful and accusing’. Plus ça change… Except that, without wishing to minimise the poison from the German far Right – recently addressed by and cheering Nigel Farage – much of the rest of Europe (and the United States) now stands in a far more parlous state. Angela Merkel and Luigi Nono: strange bedfellows, to put it mildly, but they are or were both adults, willing to speak out.

Every work of Nono’s, he said, required a provocation: ‘The genesis of any of my works is always to be found in 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 – here in the standard German translation of the original Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza europea – is testimony to and from a resistance fighter shortly to be killed by the Nazis. It is the eloquence of this music, which ‘speaks’ or ‘sings’, almost irrespective of whether it be actually vocal or otherwise, which bears witness here – and so it did. Peter Rundel and the SWR SO (the first time I have heard the orchestra since its despicable forced merger) gave a performance that seemed to me to lie very much in the line of Nono’s Second Viennese School inheritance: not just Webern, although he was certainly there, but his (posthumous) father-in-law Schoenberg too. (As Nono declared, in a lecture on A Survivor from Warsaw, it stood as ‘the musical-æsthetic manifesto of our era. What Jean-Paul Sartre says in his essay, What is Literature?, about the problem ‘why write?’, is witnessed in utterly authentic fashion in Schoenberg’s creative necessity.’) This was glowing post-Romanticism: painful, even agonising, in its beauty, as it should be, nowhere more so than in the sixth movement, when, after what I think of as a choral Dies irae without (metaphysical) end – the testimony of Esther Srul – orchestral music so horrendously beguiles us. Words, witness, their horror – for which many thanks must also go to the soloists and choir – continue to resist their aestheticisation, however ravishing, say, the melismata of Laura Aikin or the Webern aria-with-ensemble of Robin Tritschler’s preceding number (Chaim, a fourteen-year-old Jew from Galicia). We await, wish for, reconciliation, even benediction, but know, with Nono and Adorno, that it can never happen. The final silence truly terrified. It would, perhaps, have been better if we had had no applause, although I understand why we did.

The rest of the programming was intelligent: a model of its kind, to set the Nono in relief. I had a few qualms about it in practice, though. The Schumann Manfred Overture – an important work for Nono, not least in his use of the ‘Manfred chord’ in Prometeo – was played with a great deal of nervous energy, but somewhat at the expense of what else makes this very difficult piece work. Rundel drove very hard and Schumann’s music lost much of its humanity – and, I think, its sense. The two Venetian madrigals suffered in a different way. I am certainly no fundamentalist on such matters, and was intrigued to hear them sung by a chamber choir, as opposed to by soloists. There was a smoothness, however, especially to Marenzio’s Crudele, acerba, inesorabil morte, which seemed to me both somewhat to fail the piece and to fail as preparation for Nono. Beauty, yes, but not blandness, is required here.

As for Mark Andre’s 2015 über, for clarinet, orchestra, and live electronics, I am afraid I found myself rather at a loss. I liked the idea, insofar as I understood it, and Jörg Widmann certainly offered compelling showmanship as the soloist. But it seemed to me a very drawn out, often featureless, counterpart to an extended (!) Bruckner slow movement. The aural waves I heard promised much – and seemed to allude to Nono and Venice, above all to Prometeo (or at least, in this context, could be understood in that way). There were beautiful sounds to be heard; the blurring of boundaries between clarinet, electronics, and other instruments and their electronic transformation, allured. Had I not known there was no glass harmonica present, I should have sworn at one point that there was. Shadow worlds posed intriguing questions as to what was shadowing what. What did it all add up to, though? Perhaps I needed to hear it again; however, much as I should have liked to be convinced, I was not on this occasion. And it is the Nono work, which I had waited so long to hear, that now I need to hear again. So, alas, does the world in which we live.

Mark Berry

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