One Day’s Total Immersion in Peter Eötvös’ Music

Peter Eötvös: Guildhall School of Music and Drama (Silk Street Theatre) and Barbican Hall, London, 14.5.2011  (CC)

Film: The Seventh Door (1998, directed Judit Kele)
(UK premiere): Guildhall Jazz Band/Jules Buckley
Ian Bufton, Emily Heathcote & Ya-Ching Yu (clarinets)
Psalm 151 (in memoriam Frank Zappa)
and Sonata per sei (UK premiere):Guildhall New Music Ensemble/David Corkhill (conductor)
Film: Three Sisters, a film of the 2001 Paris production
ZeroPoints, Psychokosmos, Levitation
(UK premiere), IMA (UK premiere): BBC Singerswith BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Peter Eötvös (conductor).

Quite a marathon, this – and this level of concentration is exactly what these stimulating Total Immersion events are all about. Peter Eötvös remains best known in this country as a conductor, yet he is a significant composer. His imagination is remarkable, as is his searching intellect. I have I confess been known to dismiss him as a Boulez clone in the past (certainly in terms of his conducting style). No more.

Judit Kele’s film was the perfect introduction to the composer. There was even an introduction to this by Alan Williams of the University of Salford, too. The film was remarkable. We heard a large number of excerpts (including of music which was to be featured later in the day). Plus we hear Stockhausen (talking in French, saying how Eötvös could “conduct everything”) and rehearsals for Gruppen (with Pierre Boulez as one of the other conductors – at one point Boulez says something in French which was subtitled, amusingly, as “I’m completely buggered”).

It is fascinating that Eötvös should write for jazz band (in Paris-Dakar, 2000). Inspired by the annual 15,000 km off-road race held between 1978 and 2008 from Europe down into Africa, this cacophanous work that owes much to modern jazz results ina high octane ride. The influence of Messiaen seemed detectable in some of the harmonies.

In complete contrast, Derwischtanz of 1993/2001 for three slowly revolving (under their own steam) clarinettists offered its own mesmeric charms. If the solo percussion 20-minute Psalm 151 (in memoriam Frank Zappa) of 1993 seemed over-longg, it was surely not the fault of the soloist, the barefoot Taichi Imanishi. Far better was the Bartók-shaded Sonata per sei (2006). The work is derived from the earlier CAP-KO Concerto for Acoustical Piano, Keyboard and Orchestra. In the earlier work, a computer-controlled digital piano shadowed an acoustic piano with automatic doublings. Here the second pianist takes on that doubling role. All praise to the pianists of the Guildhall New Music Ensemble. The second movement sounded like a modern take on the pianists of The Carnival of the Animals. Fascinating stuff, performed with real vigour.

The opera Three Sisters, which takes Chekhov’s play as a starting point but presents independent scenes in three “sequences” was shown from a VHS of the 2001 Paris Chatelet performance (with the Radio France PO under Kent Nagano,and with the composer as off-stage conductor). It appears to be a marvellous piece but the screening did not do it anywhere near full justice. Schoenbergian elements vie with distorted Rosenkavalier hints. There are moments of real tenderness, and one becomes aware of the strong lyric side to the composer. A good pointer that a UK staging would be good.

Finally, the evening concert. ZeroPoints (1999) was written on a commission from Boulez for the LSO. It was finished in the dying moments of 1999 and suggests some directions for the future. This performance felt very well rehearsed – in its more manic moments this piece seems to reflect Paris-Dakar heard earlier in the day. The landscape here is vast, though, and includes a gong-laden processional en route to its jubilant close.

Psychokosmos (1993), featuring Miklós Lukács on cimbalom, has a history that can be traced back to the earlier piano piece Kosmos, written in response to Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. There is a real focus on beauty of sound (reflecting the beauty of space?) in the, in effect, gong bath we hear before the cimbalom enters with its characteristic sound. One can hear, too, the accuracy of Eötvös’ ear in the huge tuttis – these are not merely cacophonous, but are obviously very carefully scored.

The two pieces of the second half were no less stimulating (both were UK premières). Levitation (2007) featured the clarinets of John Bradbury and Richard Hosford in a post-Petrushka meditation on weightlessness inspired by a scene from a Chinese opera (and also by the painting of Marc Chagall). Here, the composer seemed to want to concentrate on purity of sound (with the accordion giving a silvery tinge to events). The strength oft he piece lies in its gentleness – the two clarinet soloists positively shone.

IMA of 2002 is a response to the lost continent of Atlantis (there is also a choral piece named after that continent from 1994). The BBC Singers provided the 12 solo singers of IMA. The texts are that of Genesis, but translated into an imagined language by Sándor Weöres (1913-89), and a poem by Gerhard Rühm (born 1930). The idea seems to have fired Eötvös’ imagination as this is a fine score whose momentous outlook seems to echo the stature of its subject.

A remarkable day. There is no doubt we need to hear more of this composer’s music in this country.

Colin Clarke