Austria Salzburg Festival  – Grisey: Mario Gheorghiu (viola), ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra / Maxime Pascal (conductor). Kollegienkirche, Salzburg, 16.8.2017. (MB)
Gérard Grisey – Les Espaces acoustiques
Rarely have I been so inundated with messages of envy than when I let friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter know that I was attending this performance of Gérard Grisey’s cycle of six pieces, Les Espaces acoustiques. Unlike many of them, I am very much a Grisey novice. For some reason, I was unable to attend a (relatively) recent performance of this work in London; likewise, other Grisey performances have not fallen at good, or even possible, times for me. I was therefore especially keen to begin to discover what all the fuss was about, and am most grateful to the Salzburg Festival for offering such an opportunity, not least in Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s glorious Kollegienkirche, which underlined the quasi-liturgical nature of the work – or at least one way in which it might be received.
Mario Gheorghiu’s performance of the first piece, a ‘Prologue’ for solo viola, captured, even instigated, that sense of visual and aural theatre very well, preaching to us, as it were, from the spotlit pulpit. The simplicity of Grisey’s opening material, phrases undergoing only very gradual transformation, certainly had something of an ancient, though not only an ancient, ritual to it. Coming to the work blind – or perhaps ‘deaf’ – I thought also of a slowly evolving fractal display. Whatever the truth or nonsense of that, Gheorghiu and Grisey imparted a true sense of the exploratory, albeit on an almost defiantly unhurried timescale. At some point, I realised that what I was hearing had undergone an almost complete transformation from what I had begun hearing, but I could not put my finger on when I might have begun to realise such a thing.
Gheorghiu wandered down within the wall, still audible, no longer seen, in order to join the orchestra for the second piece, ‘Périodes’, for seven musicians. Other string players joined gradually: double bass first, if I remember correctly. Again, transformation was slow, yet unmistakeable. There were here, though, I think, definite milestones, or perhaps it was more that my ears were becoming more accustomed to style, method, even idea. A duet between violin and viola, both apparently ‘tuning’, seemed a little obvious, but I suspect that was deliberate, prompting one to ask questions about expectation. Or was that just my own, almost metatheatrical, preoccupation being brought to the table? The ritualist element seemed to intensify in ‘Partiels’, for eighteen musicians. Many sonorities and harmonies were familiar in one sense, and yet, in contrast, not necessarily so. Spectralist technique seemed almost to reinvent a Straussian waterfall or Messiaenesque birdsong. Perhaps, again, that was just me; for context, again, was quite different, similarity seeming incidental if unmistakeable. I was certainly fascinated once again by the realisations that material had been transformed out of all recognition, or so it seemed. The non-cymbal-clash at the close again seemed all too predictable, but perhaps that is the point. Is it intended humourously? Or is that how we deal with unknown ritual, as in Stockhausen, with nervous laughter?
Following the interval, the fourth piece, ‘Modulations’, for thirty-three musicians, sounded perhaps still closer – but still only ‘–er‘ – to Messiaen. There was perhaps even a sense of éclat suggesting (to me) that pupil of Messiaen who will not be mentioned here. Any such (idle?) thoughts, though, were soon more or less banished, or at least subdued, by the spectralist framework within which this particular celestial banquet unfolded. ‘Transitoires’, for large orchestra seemed to develop from that movement with an expectation that was not entirely (at least for me) un-Wagnerian. Earlier onomatopoeia without an object – a forest perhaps? – was now set against and combined with a darker, deeper menace. There is clearly an extraordinary simplicity to what one hears at one level, but it is equally clear that that is not the only level at which one can, perhaps should, listen to this music. Around it, a fractal halo of sound both heightens and questions ‘familiarity’.
With the ‘Epilogue’ for four solo horns and large orchestra we return also to solo viola. That phantasmagorical ‘waterfall’ sounded here both exultant and an agent of disintegration, perhaps even tragedy. If descending the mountain is not a mirror image of the ascent, then it hardly would be; ask Strauss. Was the final drumming arbitrary or tragic? Why should it be either/or? The lady seated next to me probably came closer than any of my musings, when she turned and exclaimed: ‘Die ganze Kirche klingt!’ The church did itself resound, but it would not have done so without outstanding performances from all concerned. Maxime Pascal’s conducting of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra gave the impression, which I have no reason to doubt, of having mastered not only the detail of the score, but of its connections, and of the challenge of communicating all that and more. The players’ commitment was similarly beyond doubt. This is just what festival music-making should be: something quite out of the ‘ordinary’.
My immediate reaction was that I should now like to hear another performance, having just begun to establish what might be going on. I hope that my review will be taken in that spirit. I doubt, at this point, that I am about to become a devotee of Grisey’s music, but who knows? There are many instances of composers whose music it has taken several hearings for me to even to begin to respond to it; on the face of it, there is no reason why Grisey should not join their company. We shall see – or rather, we shall hear.