UK Premiere of an Intriguing Major Score by Philippe Manour at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach-Kurtág, Busoni, Manoury: Andreas Grau, Götz Schumacher (pianos), Experimental Studio des SWR (José Miguel Fernandez (sound direction), Dominik Kleinknecht (technician)). Wigmore Hall, London, 12.10.2015 (MB)

Bach, arr. Kurtág – Cantata: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106: Sonatina

Chorale Prelude: Alle Menschen mussen sterben, BWV 643

Chorale Prelude: Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 687

Busoni – Fantasia contrappuntisca, BV 256b

ManouryLe Temps, mode d’emploi (UK premiere)

We do not get to hear music for piano duet or for two pianos nearly as often as we should (although yours truly is already looking forward to a date in March with Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich). There are many excellent works, and if the duet repertoire is often in some respect ‘players’ music’, it loses little when transferring to the realm of public performance; after all, much the same might be said about the string quartet, or at least Hans Keller claimed so. It was especially welcome to hear a concert in which a major new work, new to these shores at any rate, was performed – and it could certainly not be considered a work for the private sphere.

In the first half, though, we heard two very different sides to the existing repertoire. First, for piano duet, were three of Kurtág’s Bach transcriptions. (I have yet to attend one of his and his wife’s recitals, always having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.) They were well chosen and well played by the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo, treated as piano music, yet retaining their essential – if you will forgive me, just this once, such an ontological assumption – modesty. The Sonatina from the Actus Tragicus might perhaps have been imbued with a greater sense of mourning, but such is of course hardly the fashion today, when we are fortunate to hear Bach played with any manner of gravity at all. The pair of alto recorders sang out beautifully – I am tempted to say rather more beautifully than in ‘real life’ – against a rock-solid ‘continuo’. Two Chorale Preludes once again provoked sadness that this music is so little known outside organ circles; there really is no excuse for any who consider themselves music lovers not to explore its riches. What one can learn from studying the Orgelbüchlein, and what Kurtág undoubtedly must have, his transcription of ‘Alle Menschen müssen sterben’ simple, straightforward, and perhaps all the better for it; that, at least is how it sounded here. The left-hand (in the original) thirds and sixths sounded smooth but not too smooth, as if attempting, and if so successfully, a sense of legato organ-style. The somewhat backward-looking style of ‘Aus Tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir’ showed what nonsense ‘backward’ and ‘forward’ are in Bach’s case, and how irrelevant ‘style’ alone is in any case. Its rhythmic complication, or perhaps better enhancement, of counterpoint shone through clearly and without mannerism.

Busoni was thus well prepared. His Fantasia contrappuntistica was here heard, for my first time, I think, in its version for two pianos. Like, on a much smaller scale, the Fifth Sonatina – as close as I shall get to this extraordinary work as a performer in concert – it marries Bach and Busoni in fascinating and unexpected ways. One can tell the difference, then one cannot; one cares, and then one does not. And yet it coheres with more than a hint of Mephistophelian necromancy; indeed, Doktor Faust came to mind on more than one occasion. So did the still surprising harmonic world of the Sonatina seconda, ‘senza tonalità’, so un-Schoenbergian, a tantalising glimpse of worlds that perhaps have yet to be discovered. There were times when I found the players a little stiff, a little short on magic, but there were others in which neo-Lisztian virtuosity swept all before it. Perhaps it is difficult to know how to approach Busoni’s music; it is certainly some of the most scandalously neglected of the twentieth century. Any niggles I might have had were firmly put in their place by gratitude at the opportunity to hear the workings of this grossly-misunderstood compositional – and musicological – mind.

I did not consult my watch, but I suspect that Philippe Manoury’s Le Temps, mode d’emploi exceeded three-quarters of an hour, and perhaps did not come so very far from an hour. I say that not as a complaint, nor indeed as praise, Webern turning in his grave, but simply to give an indication of its scale. It was written for Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher, who with the ever-wonderful Experimentalstudio des SWR, gave what seemed to me a hugely compelling performance, its commitment and, insofar as I could tell, understanding palpable throughout. That this is piano music is never in doubt; there is a joy in exploration of the piano, its capabilities, and its sonorities, often old, and occasionally newer (for instance, by placing a finger on strings inside), which speaks just as it does in the music of Liszt or Busoni. The live electronics are just as important; as Manoury puts it, ‘The two pianos are surrounded by four virtual pianos,’ via ‘a very complex system of sound synthesis, signal processing and spatialisation’. The spatial element cannot help but be felt, of course, and how interesting it is to hear that in the Wigmore Hall, but equally, immediately apparent was its musical quality. Some sort of kinship with what I have thought of as the magic squares of instrumental placing in Boulez’s sur Incises suggested itself, although whether that be simply a sign of my own personal preoccupations I cannot say. Across the span of the work, transformations apparently accomplished, according to Paul Griffiths’s note, by means of Markov chains (‘a process in which movements from one state to another are determined by probabilities’), a dialectic was dramatised, in performance as well as work, between relatively simple, irreducible material (perhaps an arpeggio, bringing Répons, unsurprisingly, to my mind, or a scalic figure) and what sounded to me, trying to make sense of what I heard, as complex yet ‘inevitable’ procedures with respect to tempo, texture, structure, and much else. I half expected the players to begin signalling their decisions to one another, as in the second book of Structures.

Indeed, the drama of Manoury’s work possessed a sheer excitement not dissimilar, although – and I do not intend this as a cavil, merely description – it is probably somewhat less concentrated. The possibilities of expansion still inherent in Boulez’s work struck me as, if not entirely, then at least to a greater extent already explored here. The language also sounds more ready to incorporate elements of tonality, perhaps a little after Messiaen, although that I say simply to ‘place’ it, rather than to impute influence. I hope that I shall have opportunity to hear the work, whether from these performers or others, soon, to further an exploration which, for me at least, has only just begun.

Mark Berry

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