Outstanding Performances of Contemporary Works at the Cité de la Musique

Fedele, Staud, and Mantovani: Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, Robin Meier (IRCAM sound realisation), Franck Berthoux (IRCAM sound engineer), Ensemble Intercontemporain, Susanna Mälkki (conductor). Salle des concerts, Cité de la musique, Paris, 17.6.2011 (MB)

Ivan Fedele – Animus anima II, for vocal ensemble
Johannes Maria Staud – Par ici! (world premiere, Ensemble Intercontemporain commission)
Bruno Mantovani – Cantata no.1, for six singers and ensemble

This was a splendid concert: three fine contemporary works, one of which was receiving its first performance, in performances that seemed fully worthy of their stature. One expects excellent things of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, of course, but that is no reason to take its achievements for granted. The concert slotted nicely into two slots, IRCAM’s Agora Festival, and the Cité de la musique’s Fifth Vocal Art Biennale, the latter ranging from Dufay to Scelsi via Monteverdi, Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, and many others.

First up was Ivan Fedele’s Animus anima II, a 2009 work to texts by Giuliani Corti. The solo voices of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart seemed quite at home with it, as well they might, since it was that ensemble which commissioned the work. Formed of four movements, lasting about twenty minutes in total, this is a piece made up of an array of words, more concerned, according to Corti, with animus, whilst voices provide the anima: a binary opposition fundamental to the work’s progression. Each of the four movements takes its name from a figure of the anima: ‘Incipit’, ‘Eros’, ‘Vox’, and ‘Anghelos’. The language being Italian, almost every word – but not quite – ends with a vowel, which, at least to a non-Italian ear, imparts a certain sort of musical vocalism already. Is it noteworthy that the first word, ‘caos’ (‘chaos’) provides an exception? Perhaps, for we seem to undergo some form of creatio ex nihilo, especially when one comes to consider Fedele’s music.

Corti’s programme note confined itself to aspects of his text, so, a newcomer to Fedele, I had no idea what to expect, a situation that lent an apt, expectant sense of creation to my listening. Sounds became song in ‘Incipit’, answering negatively my initial questioning as to whether the vocal writing might remain stranded in a world too overtly inspired by aspects of Nono and Lachenmann. The words’ sounds remain, however, of crucial importance, to musical development. There is, as sometimes with Nono, a sense of Renaissance music – in this case, the vocal consort – being refracted and rejuvenated through contemporary means. ‘Eros’ opens with a swifter, more jubilant tone, soon transformed into spoken debate, thereafter into whispering, before returning to jubilant song, often in triple time. At its more ornate, I sensed a kinship with Monteverdian madrigal-writing. Flowery solo moments, including an especially lovely mezzo contribution (Truike van der Poel) characterise ‘Vox’, along with an impression – not simply pitch-based – of ascension. ‘Anghelos’ opens at a fast tempo, not unlike ‘Eros’, with an almost Messiaenesque (bird) chorus – albeit here accomplished through words and the sound of words. Alternating between such material and slower sections, this ultimately proved an exultant finale. The performance had no conductor, but was directed where necessary – often it was not – by a member of the ensemble, whose contribution, so far as I could tell, was thoroughly excellent.

Johannes Maria Staud’s Par ici!, for ensemble, received its world premiere from the Ensemble Intercontemporain under Susanna Mälkki. Taking its name from a line in Baudelaire’s ‘Voyage’ (the last of his Fleurs du Mal), it is composed instrumentally for flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, percussion, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and electronic MIDI piano, the latter creating in effect a micro-tonal instrument whose temperament may be modified by touch, Staud’s inspiration being the piano scordatura of Gérard Grisey. ‘Impure’ intervals present not an out-of-tune instrument of weird ‘effects’ – we can leave that to the ‘authenticke’ brigade – but a micro-tonal array of new harmonic possibilities, quite in keeping with the perfumed possibilities of Baudelaire:

Nous nous embarquerons sur la mer des Ténèbres
avec le cœur joyeux d’un jeune passager.
Entendez-vous ces voix, charmantes et funèbres,
Qui chantent : «Par ici ! Vous qui voulez manger
le Lotus parfumé !»

The opening flute line, here delivered by long-time EIC member, Sophie Cherrier, triggers off contributions from the other instrumentalists, including the modified piano (Dimitri Vassilakis). This is a febrile opening, full of tension within a slow tempo. Post-Ligeti (perhaps also post-Xenakis) string swarming continues the musical development. For there is a real sense of dramatic trajectory here, within the eight minutes of Staud’s work; it is almost a Lisztian tone poem for the twenty-first century. I very much look forward to hearing it again and indeed to further exploration of the composer’s work. Mälkki and the EIC seemed fully to have the piece’s measure: let us hope for a recording.

Finally came Bruno Mantovani’s Cantata no.1, in which instrumentalists (clarinet, horn, percussion, piano, viola, and cello), conductor, and vocal soloists were united. I admired Mantovani’s opera, Akhmatova, earlier this year; if anything, I thought this 2006 work finer still. Or perhaps it was that I found it easier to grasp as a whole. At any rate, the form is almost ‘traditional’, in that it takes eleven poems by Rilke, and sets them sequentially but as part of a greater whole, for the most part with instrumental interludes. The order is as follows: ‘Es ist noch Tag auf der Terrasse’, ‘Gesang der Frauen an den Dichter’, ‘Der Tod der Geliebten’, ‘Herbst’, ‘Das Lied der Bildsäule’, ‘Pietà’, ‘Träume, die in deinen Tiefen wallen’, ‘Ein weißes Schloß in weißer Einsamkeit’, ‘Wir haben lange im Licht gelacht’, ‘Um die vielen Madonnen’, and ‘Schlußstück’. I was actually put in mind more than once of a chamber reimagination of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, though have no reason to think that anything more than my own fancy.

The opening clarinet solo, here in the expert hands of Alain Damiens, announces a post-Boulezian musical legacy of arabesques, more violent than their counterparts in Akhmatova, against which a counter-tenor solo movement may be heard, Daniel Gloger’s rendition pure, precise, and yet nevertheless sensuous. That violence is resumed in the first interlude’s cello part, giving way to ravishing piano-led harmonies (the interludes between fourth and fifth songs, and fifth and sixth, sound frankly post-Debussyan), and a sustained horn note around which the piano can play, such play skilfully, sensitively accomplished by Vassilakis. Mantovani deploys a great deal of variation in terms of forces used: solo voices, higher or lower groups of voices, full vocal ensemble, and the a cappella writing of ‘Träume’ and ‘Um die vielen Madonnen’. Interaction with the instrumentalists provides further variation and continuity, as for instance in the viola and clarinet protests against a trio of higher voices in ‘Gesang der Frauen an den Dichter’, which seem to persist in the subsequent cello reaction to the vocalists, or the monotonal percussion response to four male voices in ‘Der Tod der Geliebten’. One really gains a sense, then, of a cantata written in a sense responding to, without imitating, Bach’s supreme and often highly experimental example. Indeed, the employment of bass and B-flat clarinet (both played by Damiens) in ‘Herbst’ reminded me of the richness of Bach’s woodwind family, only occasionally recaptured in subsequent music. Likewise, the tenor’s arioso-like writing in ‘Das Lied der Bildsäule’ necessarily has resonances with earlier music. Repeated attempts, eventually successful,

to voice the word ‘Träume’ both recalled the opening of Fedele’s work and substitute for an instrumental interlude. Mantovani’s a cappella setting proved haunting in itself and an apt preparation for the resumption of Boulezian hostilities in the instrumental transition to the next song, ‘Ein weis Schloß in weißer Einsamkeit’, whose near-hysterical climax upon the ‘Schloß’ of ‘Es blinkt das Schloß’ leads ultimately to delirious entwining of two soprano voices, almost a duet-response to Strauss’s Daphne, in ‘Wir haben lange im Licht gelacht’. The opening warbling ensemble of the penultimate ‘Um die vielen Madonnen’ brought to mind the post-Messiaen writing of the final movement of the Fedele piece, but Mantovani’s setting proved more focused upon the words rather than their sounds, not unlike some of Schoenberg’s choral writing, though doubtless the German language is an issue here too. There was to be no interlude between that movement and ‘Schlußstück’, with its immediate, violent fortissimo outburst from all concerned, hanging over the rest of the poem. Percussion and viola sound the final instrumental voices, an equivocal signal of something akin to life in the light of Rilke’s verse:

Der Tod ist groß.
Wir sind die Seinen
lachenden Munds.
Wenn wir uns mitten im Leben meinen,
wagt er zu weinen
mitten in uns.

Three excellent works then, by three excellent composers, in three excellent performances. Though I imagined that the highlight of this visit to Paris would take place at the Palais Garnier or the Opéra Bastille, there can be no question that it was here, in the Cité de la musique, at the intersection of two festivals.

Mark Berry