Rebecca Saunders and Harrison Birtwistle’s Music of Today Provides Perspectives on Music of the Past


Musikfest Berlin [3] – Saunders, Birtwistle, and Dowland: Doniatenne Michel-Dansac (soprano), Andrew Watts (countertenor), Peter Veale (oboe), Mirjam Schröder (harp), Paul Jeukendrup (sound design), Ensemble Musikfabrik, Enno Poppe and Harrison Birtwistle (conductors). Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie, Berlin, 9.9.2017. (MB)
Musikfest Berlin - photo credit, Kai Bienert.

Musikfest Berlin (c) Kai Bienert

Rebecca SaundersYes (2016-17, world premiere)
Birtwistle –  Cortege (2007); 26 Orpheus Elegies (2003-4) interspersed with:
Dowland, arr. Birtwistle – Lachrimae: seaven tears figured in seven passionate pavanes (1604/2009)

Other soloists:
Helen Bledsoe (flute, bass flute)
Carl Rosman (clarinet, bass clarinet)
Alban Wesly (bassoon)
Christine Chapman (horn)
Marco Blaauw, Nathan Plante (trumpet)
Jan Roskilly (trombone, bass trumpet)
Melvyn Poore (tuba)
Dirk Rothbrust, Rie Watanabe (percussion)
Ulrich Löffler, Benjamin Kobler (piano)
Krassimir Sterev (accordion)
Hannah Weirich, Yoonhee Lee (violin)
Axel Porath, Kirstin Maria Pientka, Tim-Erik Winzer (viola)
Dirk Wietheger, Andreas Müller (cello)
Florentin Ginot (double bass)

Whilst London once again endured that ghastly annual farrago at the Royal Albert Hall – if, as apologists claim, it is ‘just a party’, then kindly choose a ‘theme’ other than imperialism – Berlin showed what British music, European music, or better still, just ‘music’, can and should be: bold, forward-looking, outward-facing, and above all, nourishing as well for the body as for the soul. It was almost certainly more than a mere programming coincidence that the three composers featured here were all English, but there was certainly nothing nationalistic concerning the choice, any more than there would have been had this been an all-German programme – or, for that matter, an all-nineteenth-century programme. We make connections when and where we and the material will. The crucial thing is quality; that was not lacking here.

The first part of the concert was devoted to the premiere of Rebecca Saunders’s Yes, a spatial performance for soprano (Doniatenne Michel-Dansac), nineteen soloists (Ensemble Musikfabrik), and conductor (Erno Poppe), after the final chapter of Ulysses (in particular, Molly Bloom’s monologue). Joyce famously said he wanted his book to end on the most positive word in the English language – and so it did. So too does this work of vocal and instrumental theatre, in some ways standing in the tradition of Birtwistle’s music theatre and other musical dramatic works, although certainly not merely to be assimilated to them. Beat Furrer’s FAMA also came to my mind, if only because it is not so long ago that I heard its London premiere.  But the previous weekend’s Monteverdi could not also help but hover in my contextual consciousness, not least since this evening we also heard from both Ulysses and Orpheus. This, then, proved in many ways – I have only hinted at a few – ideal programming both in itself and in the context of the broader themes of this year’s Musikfest Berlin.

We hear first the voice, then double bass. And so, a new Odyssean journey is underway – albeit from Molly Bloom’s standpoint, if we care to think about it that way (and why would we not?) The Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal proved as much instrument as mere location: Monteverdian echoes again, or perhaps better, pre-echoes, hinting at the Vespers next weekend. There was arguably more ‘Mediterranean’ spirit – not in some narrow geographical way, but open as the sea itself, open as Angela Merkel’s Germany itself (at its best) – than there had been in the strangely insular world of John Eliot Gardiner’s ‘English’ Monteverdi. New members of the ensemble joined, all over the hall: a microcosm perhaps of a world outside, but also, perhaps more importantly, a created world, like that of Joyce. Art does not merely reproduce ‘reality’; if it did, we should have no need of it.

Trumpets called, duetted, almost as if this were St Mark’s. Wind surrounded us from the balconies above. This was a theatre of instruments and of instrumentalists, whether or no Michel-Dansac were singing, her contributions and those of everyone else equally impressive in virtuosity and the humanity that incited and enabled. Rarely were positions static for long; our ears and our minds moved, even if we physically stayed put. (Again, the precedent may be found in Joyce, Monteverdi, wherever one wishes…) Nothing was to be taken for granted, certainly not the sound of the soprano voice, which often might have been taken for a contralto. Indeed, that is precisely how Michel-Dansac had been listed when, earlier this year, I heard her in Le Marteau sans maître! It was not only the ‘range’ of her voice, but of all ‘voices’. Hierarchies, spatial and musical dissolved as, say, the (wonderful) accordionist had his ‘spot’ and then moved on: or were there indeed no such hierarchies in the first place? Was that simply my need to think of them that way, and if so, what does that say about me? This was, then, in many respects, an ‘open’ world: Berio (Sinfonia) suggested itself more than once, perhaps even in the odd musical figure, although that may well just have been my imagination playing tricks. This was, I think, more drama than ritual, insofar as the distinction makes sense (on which one might perhaps consider Parsifal), not that there is anything wrong with ritual – as Birtwistle would triumphantly show. Michel-Dansac’s final stream of consciousness muttering, or more than that, proved unusually ‘audible’. Once again, what might that mean? And why might we ask that? Scale is not everything; indeed, as the Orpheus Elegies to come would show, it is perhaps nothing at all. This was nevertheless the largest-scale work by Saunders I had yet heard, and it confirmed, even enhanced, the view I have of her as one of the finest composers of her generation.

The second half opened with Birtwistle’s Cortege, a ‘ceremony’ written in memory of Michael Vyner, itself a reworking of the much older ceremony, Ritual Fragment. It is, perhaps, more familiar territory to me – although how ‘familiar’ can the strange antiquity of Birtwistle ever be? The musicians certainly played it with all the confidence, yet none of the taking for granted, of a ‘classic’ work, which it is. Different soloists again took their ‘turn’: this is an ensemble piece in all manner of ways. There remains, I think – or did in this performance – something of a post-Stravinskian ‘attitude’ to the music, The Soldier’s Tale still somehow present in the background, as it is for so much music theatre, actual or related. Perhaps even The Rite there somewhere too, in the odd instrumental line? I do not think it is anything so obvious as ‘influence’ by now, but as I said above, one makes connections when and where one will. This ritual teemed with drama, at any rate, at least as much as any work with words might have done. Whatever distinction I might have made in the first half had already been called into question, indeed dissolved.

So too was it with the interweaving of Birtwistle’s Dowland arrangements with his own Orpheus Elegies. That antique, indeed archaic (in the proper sense), ‘authenticity’ of which, in which, the elegies speak, with or without words, was immediately apparent in the very first. (Many of them have no vocal part at all, simply or not so simply alluding to the Rilke sonnets from which the work takes its name and, in part, inspiration.) The refracted sound of the old viol consort in Dowland-Birtwistle offered its own counterpart, challenge, emotional intensification, all the more so perhaps when, in the second piece, strings were joined by wind: never quite as one expects, yet never seeking attention either. Veiled rather than violent, one might say, but is that again all too easy a formulation? The world of the Orpheus Elegies: rhythms as much as melodies, and above all their clashes (occasionally in stark relief through the use of metronomes). Occasionally, I thought of Elliott Carter’s polyrhythms, although again I am not quite sure why: perhaps, again, that was just my own fancy, but why not? Webern’s celebrated Bach arrangement hovered also in the (non-electronic) penumbra of my consciousness: father, or mother, to so much in this tradition, just like his ‘own’ work. And were not Dowland’s ‘passionate pavanes’ themselves also speaking of a ‘passion’ one might conceivably associate with Bach? The dissonances were certainly as moving, likewise the grace with which they were presented, a grace that in no way precluded depth. That the final Dowland arrangement seemed truly to emerge from within the 16th Elegy (they were not performed ‘in order’, I should add) seemed to make both more present and yet more distant. After that, after those ‘true tears’, the final (19th) Elegy offered an instrumental conclusion unadorned in every respect.

Mark Berry

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