An Overdue London Première: Well Worth the Wait

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haas: London Sinfonietta, Emilio Pomàrico (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 6.12.2013 (MB)

Georg Friedrich Haasin vain (London première)


It has taken quite a while for Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain to receive a performance in the United Kingdom. The London Sinfonietta under Emilio Pomàrico – valiantly, brilliantly standing in for an indisposed André de Ridder – gave this country’s première in Huddersfield, before bringing the work to the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the final weekend of the Southbank Centre’s Rest is Noise festival. Audience numbers are far from everything. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing in front of a couple of enthusiasts, or indeed simply for its own sake in front of no one at all: for the glory of God, as any mediæval composer would have understood. Yet the claim that contemporary music is of limited interest, that what audiences want is a generic programme of overture-concerto-symphony – a perfectly reasonable formation if done for a good reason rather than out of laziness – was once again belied by a sell-out for a more than hour-long ensemble work by a sixty-year-old Austrian composer. This is not the churned-out pandering of minimalism, ‘holy’ or otherwise, but substantial, substantive, music, which both requires effort and rewards it. Such in any case was my first experience of a work whose renown has steadily grown over the past few years, not least thanks to the advocacy of figures such as Sir Simon Rattle and Alex Ross. An introduction by Rattle, given before a Berlin performance earlier this year, was reprinted in the programme. I am glad I only read it afterwards, since it enabled me to hear the performance without any preconceptions, not knowing at all what to expect, but I should recommend the enthusiasm and intelligence of Rattle’s words to anyone remotely curious.

One thing that struck me about a performance, whose length was not so very far off that of a Mahler symphony, was how compelling the experience was, in the sense that not only I, but seemingly 99% of the audience, had no difficulty whatsoever in concentrating throughout; the impression was of an audience gripped. In a situation such as this, one inevitably tends to make references to other works and composers, sometimes more revealingly than others: not only as a reference point, but also simply in an attempt to find verbal approximations. I do not mean, then, necessarily to imply ‘influence’, let alone derivation, but simply to offer a few descriptive signposts of my own experience, itself derived only from hearing a performance rather than from having seen the score.

Ligeti came to mind, not that the opening string scurryings sounded quite ‘like’ him, let alone the ‘harsher’ soundworld of, say, Xenakis, but as a starting-point, not only for my own orientation, but for appreciation of Haas’s sheer inventiveness, one could probably have done worse. (I saw afterwards that Rattle had also invoked Ligeti, so perhaps I was not being entirely fanciful.) There is theatre, of course, even if one did not know that Haas composed the work partly as an expression of dismay at the rise of the Freedom Party in Austria’s 1999 elections. (He grew up in Voralberg, later reflecting upon his experience: ‘However impressive the landscape might have been … life there in the 1950s and 1960s was largely cut off from the cultural developments in the world outside.’ This was no sentimental rural idyll, then, for him, but a disturbingly reactionary environment in need of response.) Periods of total darkness enable one to listen all the more closely: what extraordinary skill on the part of the musicians! And the dawning of light upon the stage more often than not proves – yes, in vain. Ceremonial contributes to that sense of theatre, brass perhaps recalling the great aequale of Austrian tradition: archaic almost, and yet very much of the present, just like the trombones in Don Giovanni or Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.

For it was the ghosts of German Romanticism that most haunted my experience of the work. Perhaps that is simply a matter of personal preoccupation, but it is not, I think, entirely so. Battle and curious confluence between ‘natural’ and modern, tempered tuning take place; again, Ligeti inevitably came to mind. (Is it that contest that makes the music ‘microtonal’, or is it the microtones that suggest to Haas the contest? Does it matter?) But the sense of trying to recreate a ‘natural’ world both necessary and yet, in some senses, out of our grasp, born of major triads, the arpeggios of, say, Das Rheingold, and the heart-rending horn echoes both of Wagner and of Der Freischütz – Schumann too – summons up the ‘in-vain-ness’ not only of musical works but also the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. Those paintings may have been over-exposed in recent years, tarnished by base commercialism; so has Romanticism itself, many times over. The specific and the generic will nevertheless survive. Ghosts will adapt; indeed, we may doubt whether they are ghosts at all. There were indeed a good few times in which memories of that great ‘farewell’ that is not really a farewell to Austro-German tradition, Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, insinuated themselves. I have heard many people express surprise that Helmut Lachenmann, that most avid, intrepid examiner and re-inventor of this tradition, should so admire Strauss’s work; that must reflect on their misunderstanding of Strauss. Lachenmann ‘gets’ Strauss; so, I suspect, does Haas.

The inexorable downward scalic passages of the closing ten minutes or so are as mesmerising as anything I have heard in ‘new music’ for quite some time. Tension mounting – doubtless at least as much through the Sinfonietta’s superlative performance as through the work itself – these apparently generative passages lead nowhere – but it is, of course, nowhere, nothing, something negative, in vain, that is being generated. Attempts to break free of what Rattle illuminatingly describes as ‘music … [getting] stuck on  … [an] extraordinary Escher staircase’ seem to involve both reversion, that is to scales themselves, and also neo-Lisztian innovation. My memory drew parallels with the introduction to Liszt’s B minor sonata, to the astonishing scales that most undervalued, most farsighted of nineteenth-century masters offers as material for more or less the entirety of that indisputable masterpiece. And the disconcerting, even frightening stop to which the music suddenly came: that, I thought, could only be Wozzeck. Rattle, I discovered, thought so too, adding Erwartung to the mix as well.

Performances, insofar as I could tell, were exemplary throughout. The London Sinfonietta are past masters at such challenges, yet we should celebrate that achievement rather than take it for granted. Pomàrico, making his London debut, clearly needs to visit these shores again soon. So does Haas. The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 Hear and Now, on Saturday 18 January 2014.

Mark Berry

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