Sciarrino’s Carnaval: A renaissance of the Renaissance?

AustriaAustria Wien Modern (2) – Sciarrino: Joonas Ahonen (piano), Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, Klangforum Wien/Tito Ceccherini (conductor). Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 6.11.2015. (MB)

SciarrinoCarnaval (2010-11, Austrian premiere)

The Austrian premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino’s Carnaval was placed in trustworthy hands. One expects excellence from Klangforum Wien and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, but one should never take excellence for granted. Joined by Joonas Ahonen as pianist (he is in fact a member of Klangforum Wien, but here had soloistic billing) and Tito Ceccherini as conductor, the two ensembles not only displayed musical excellence; they seemed also to express musical delight, a key concept in both the written texts and their musical setting, just as in so many madrigals of old, long an inspiration to Sciarrino. Five voices, piano solo, ten other instrumentalists (two flutes, two clarinets, two trombones, two cellos, three percussionists), and conductor united in a fashion not entirely different from that suggested by Monteverdi’s example.

In twelve movements, all but one of them with voices, Carnaval treads a madrigalian line, familiar yet reimagined, between what we might consider, however insufficient the terms, the popular and the aristocratic. But that is not perhaps the most important of its explorations. The written texts, all in Italian, mostly originate in ancient Chinese verse, an Odyssey-like (Sciarrino’s own comparison) homage to the art of Towitara Buoyoyu as well as the more obvious – to most in the West – character-piece homage to Schumann, the ‘fantastic’, and perhaps a tension between larger-scale form and the fragmentary. Masks, disguises, the play of appearance and whatever might lie behind it: such seem to be part of the material, both musical, verbal, and, I think we might say, even with cautionary quotation marks, ‘dramatic’ too. Monteverdi’s dramatic madrigals call into question rigid distinctions between concert and drama; so have many works since, not least some of Schumann’s, and certainly many of Sciarrino’s.

Voices such as Zhuang Zhou, from the fourth century before Christ, take us up to the final recitative text, elaborated by Sciarrino from a biography of Tao Yuanming. They all treat in some way with the idea and indeed the practical reality of music, and, in more general terms, that of artistic creation and performance too. Love for music and for its performance are not the least of their qualities: kissing the sound of a note sung, for instance (no.10, ‘Lasciar vibrare’: ‘Suono pieno/stordisce/tenue silenzio/trasporta I canti/tu lascia che il suono/baci la sua vibrazione/lascia’). Sometimes, the music offers a strong pictorial element, for instance the traditional word-painting, both instrumental and vocal, upon ‘tremante’ in no.7. In other cases, the relationship is more oblique or more complicated. Infectious joy in music-making is never far away, though, whether in the carolling – or so it seemed to me – of no.4, or the febrile, almost Boulezian – a comparison rather than thesis of ‘influence’ – proliferation of instrumental material in no.11. The social element of a musician’s endeavour – ‘inventing images’ for his friends – has all manner of historical and indeed geographical precedent: the Schubertiade or the heyday of the madrigal itself, as well as more folk-like instances. Here, it seems honestly, playfully reinvented.

One might consider the purely instrumental eleventh movement, ‘Stanze della pioggia (dedicato a Maurizio Pollini)’ a concertante piece for piano and ensemble, yet it came across here, most creditably, as perhaps closer still to chamber music. Virtuosity was shared across the ensemble; different soloists emerged as momentarily pre-eminent, but not for the sake of pre-eminence. It stands as longer than any of the other movements, longer than many of them put together. Repeated figures and their variants are passed through the ensemble, but certain instruments, not least one of the cellos, seem to retain a degree of ownership. Perhaps such figures and variants create their own narrative, even their own linguistic world. Do we need words after all? And yet, we return to words for the twelfth movement, that evocation of Tao Yuanming mentioned above. He could make no music, but he had a lute without strings, ‘un liuto senza corde’. Wine plays its part in the verbal resolution, as the piano does in its musical playing out. Such collegiality and conviviality seem not the least of the delights one might take home, at least in memory, from such a musical feast. A renaissance of the Renaissance, perhaps: or, so we fancy.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment