The London Sinfonietta’s Habitual Excellence in Boulez and Stockhausen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Boulez and Stockhausen: Clio Gould (violin), Sound Intermedia, Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, London Sinfonietta, Wolfgang Lischke (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 5.12.2015. (MB)

BoulezDérive 1Anthèmes 2

StockhausenHymnen: Region III

It is with great sadness that I find this Boulez anniversary year drawing to a close. What a year it has been, with magnificent performances of the composer’s œuvre across Europe (it would seem far less so in the United States, the New York Philharmonic’s silence unforgivable). Those wishing to programme Boulez’s music should now have every justification they need: a wealth of performers possessed of both passion and excellence, and large audiences, hungry to hear more. (That goes for so much post-war New Music, which, bizarrely, I suppose we can still just about call this repertoire.) Yet I fear that silence will resume come 2016, the most reactionary in the audience – who, for some reason, seem always to have most say – breathing a sigh of relief that they can safely return to wall-to-wall Rachmaninov.

Let us hope not and let us do what we can to ensure not. The London Sinfonietta’s performances here were as excellent as one might have expected, arguably still more so. Not least of my musical epiphanies this year was the moment when Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra finally had Dérive 2 click into place for me. What had puzzled me – and what some friends had disdained as unworthy of the composer – stood revealed as the masterpiece Barenboim had claimed. Dérive 1, which I do not think I have heard performed this year otherwise, worked beautifully as an ‘overture’. Boulez’s writing, the Sinfonietta’s playing, and Wolfgang Lischke’s finely-judged direction drew one in: had one lose oneself again in material from Répons and Messagesquisse. What one might, I suppose, call developing variation – Boulez’s fabled Brahms-scepticism notwithstanding – manifested itself with equal clarity and warmth, almost as if we were hearing it from the composer himself. The six chords ‘derived’ from SACHER worked their magic: melodic, harmonic, structural. One felt – as well as knew intellectually – the processes, in an intriguing dialectic between Stravinskian clarity and Debussyan ambiguity, at work, and longed for more, indeed for Dérive 2.

Clio Gould’s performance of Anthèmes 2 with the ever-excellent Sound Intermedia was quite outstanding, immediately rendering irrelevant any doubts about the suitability of the venue. Again – and perhaps this was a consequence of a good few performance opportunities throughout the year – connections with other works manifested themselves, but they were of secondary importance when compared with the confidence, virtuosity, and musicality with which Gould performed this indispensable work. It sounded and resounded with all the musical drama and depth of a solo violin work by Bach. In fact, the great D minor Chaconne came to my mind, relevantly or otherwise, as an unacknowledged progenitor. Light and shadow, concision and proliferation, harmony and counterpoint, intellectual and emotional drama: all of these and many more combined in ways that seemed created almost on the spot, in order to offer the most ‘compleat’ performance I have heard of the work. The humorous, throw-away ending remains as splendid as ever.

Stockhausen probably does even less well than Boulez in performing terms. The last big opportunity I had was the unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime (I fear!) production of Mittwoch in Birmingham. Opera companies across the world should unite, having nothing to lose but their insipid – at best – bel canto chains; instead, Licht languishes unperformed as a whole, anywhere, ever. With this performance of Region III from Hymnen, we heard and again felt just a little of what we were missing. I must admit that I will sometimes approach some of Stockhausen’s pronouncements on his music with a little scepticism. (Surely not?!) However, words from the composer on process and on what I think we can call meaning, words I only read afterwards, seemed to me very much to tally with another fine performance, members of the London Sinfonietta now joined by inspired and inspiring musicians from the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble. ‘National anthems,’ Stockhausen claimed, are the most familiar music imaginable. … When familiar music is integrated into a composition of unknown, new music, it is possible,’ and here it certainly seemed accomplished, ‘to hear especially well how it was integrated: untransformed, more or less transformed, transposed or modulated. The more self-evident the what, the more attentive one becomes to the how.’ (Think, for instance, of Webern’s and Schoenberg’s Bach transcriptions.) Yet, equally importantly, ‘national anthems are more than national anthems; they are “charged” with time, with history – with past, present and future. They accentuate the subjectivity of people in a time when uniformity is all too often mistaken for universality.’ An intriguing, provocative thought, but not just a thought: there seemed in performance to be genuine experience, through those musical processes, of that thought. Objets trouvés took on or, better, continued lives of their own, somewhere in between integration and transformation. We asked what their relationship to us was, had been, might yet be. Insofar as I could tell, the musicians seemed to responding aurally as well as to what was written for them; I do not know the work well enough to be sure. What I can be sure of is that the performance convinced me, and again left me wanting to hear more. Next time, let us hope, more than a single Region, but many thanks indeed are due to the London Sinfonietta for this opportunity, splendidly taken!

The Stockhausen performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 to form part of its broadcast quadrophonic sound premiere of Hymnen on New Year’s Day, 2016. It is described as being part of its ‘New Year New Music focus’; I suppose we should disregard the unloveliness of the phrase and be grateful that Radio 3 still broadcasts such music at all.

Mark Berry

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