United Kingdom Takemitsu, Ligeti: Adam Walker (flute), Ilya Gringolts (violin), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 28.11.2013 (GDn)
I Hear the Water Dreaming
Ligeti: San Francisco Polyphony
Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have long been a powerhouse combination for Modernist music. Some petty politics, now long forgotten (hopefully), led to him standing down from the top job with the orchestra in 2009, and he is now their Principal Guest Conductor. That has made concerts like this one rarer, which is a shame, because they are always worth catching. Volkov and the BBC SSO seem to revel in the sheer complexity of the music he presents them with. The chemistry between him and the players is ideal, and although he clearly rehearses and coordinates with discipline and rigour, they are still able to make the results sound spontaneous. Even more impressively, the orchestra plays this music like they mean it. Not so long ago, most symphony orchestras playing Modernist music did so with the attitude “We just play this, it’s not our fault how it sounds.” These days such performances are rare, and the engagement of rank and file players to the Modernist cause is due in no small part to the passion and commitment of conductors like Volkov.
The concert was devoted to Takemitsu and Ligeti, an indulgence that could only make sense in the context of a large-scale festival of 20th-century music. The works were well chosen, most on the borderline between the familiar and the obscure: Volkov was clearly keen to give some of the more neglected works by the two composers an airing. He was wise though to place Takemitsu first, as the Japanese composer’s contribution would have paled into insignificance if heard after the Ligeti, especially the latter’s Violin Concerto, the one undisputable masterpiece here.
The three Takemitsu works came from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and offered an outline of his stylistic development over those decades. Green, composed in 1967, finds the young composer in the process of reconciling his engagement with Japanese music with his love for Debussy. It’s a frustratingly short work – even at this early date his discourse is expansive – but the snapshot that this six minutes of music gives is a clear indicator of what was to come.
Of the three Takemitsu works, the most distinctive and the most accomplished was the 1976 Marginalia. Takemitsu was by then committed to exploring the traditional music of his homeland, and more confident about referencing Debussy in his textures. The allusions to traditional Japanese instruments are particularly interesting, temple gongs from the percussion section and shakuhachis from the flutes. And how does Takemitsu get the two harps to sound like shamisens? Metallic objects against the strings must surely be the answer; a technique borrowed from Berio, but a sound that comes straight from the Japanese imperial court.
I Hear the Water Dreaming is a piece for flute and orchestra, the soloist here Adam Walker. His tone is sweet but focussed and his musical manner unimposing, which is ideal, as Takemitsu is never in the business of writing bravura concertos. Finely balanced orchestral textures helped this work to achieve its desired effect. Given the time and effort that the following Ligeti scores clearly required in rehearsal, it is difficult to tell how much attention the Takemitsu received. Volkov’s conducting style was quite stiff, and he seemed always to be focussing on the beat and on synchronising the parts. In fact, one or two entries sounded frayed, so perhaps he was right to keep the orchestra on a short leash.
Even by Ligeti’s standards San Francisco Polyphony is an intense experience. As the title suggests, the sheer amount of material that is presented simultaneously makes this a piece that you need to take in several different ways at once. In fact, the complexities stretch beyond the counterpoint and into the timbre and orchestration. The polyphony comes in waves and the more layered passages are interpolated by homophonic “refrains”. Here, the basic texture is a dry, brittle string sound, harmonically complex, and involving multiple harmonic effects. The large string section of the BBC SSO totally nailed these passages, and they were the key to the performance being as successful as it was. Few orchestras or conductors have the nerve to programme San Francisco Polyphony, such are the difficulties it poses, but Volkov and his BBC SSO players demonstrated this evening that they’ve got what it takes.
Ligeti’s Violin Concerto poses the additional problem of finding a soloist willing to take on what must be one the most demanding solo parts in the repertoire. In fact, many violinists have been willing to accept the challenge since the work was completed in 1993. As a result, the work has generated a diverse performance tradition over its 20 years in the repertoire, with some violinists stressing work’s Classical/Modernist austerity and others delving deeper into the Romanticism of its Hungarian folk roots. Ilya Gringolts is in the former category, but that’s not to say that his interpretation lacks colour or imagination. He’s got all the notes under his fingers, and that’s no mean feat in itself. But he’s more interested in the complex artificial harmonic passages of the outer movements than he is, say, in the folk song of the second. The orchestra again rose to the many challenges Ligeti posed. The small ensemble was arranged into two arcs around the soloist, the stings (tuned to a range of pitch standards and conventions) on the inside and the winds outside. The woodwinds really shone in the concerto. Flautist Rosemary Eliot has a rounder, warmer tone than Walker, the better to complement the gritty focus of the violin sound. Like her colleagues, she was also required to play other instruments, in her case the recorder and ocarina. The ocarina chorales in the second movement could have been more carefully tuned (seriously!), but the balance in the ocarina and recorder playing, which can’t have been easy for anybody, was very finely judged.
With this concert, The Rest is Noise has done its duty by Toru Takemitsu, an important if marginal figure in the history of 20th-century music, and one whose contribution was appropriately acknowledged through this half of a concert devoted to his music. Ligeti, on the other hand, would seem to deserve more, and even with the LPO’s Lontano a few weeks back and the Philharmonia’s 2001 live screening before that, it is easy still to feel that his towering influence has been neglected. In fact, he’s just one of many Modern masters who must vie for precious space in programmes as the festival progresses, and there are surely many figures, just as worthy and notable as him, who will get even less of the attention they deserve. Just goes to show – it was one hell of a century.