Insula’s remarkable musical exploration of the relationship between man and nature

FranceFrance Pastoral for the Planet: Sophie Karthäuser (soprano), Insula Orchestra / Laurence Equilbey (dramaturg / conductor). La Seine Musicale, Paris, 26.2.2020. (CC)

Insula Orchestra’s Pastorale for the Planet (c) Marie Guilloux

BeethovenDie Geschöpfe des Prometheus: ‘La Tempesta’ (1801)
ReichaLenore: Sturm (c1805)
TraditionalJota (Aragon, Spain)
RietzHero und Leander: Overture (1841)
Traditional songs from New Guinea
Weber Kampf und Sieg, Op. 44 (1815): Battle
Traditional Ukrainian song
Beethoven – Symphony No.7 (1811/12): second movement
Fanny Hensel MendelssohnHero und Leander (1832)

Beethoven – Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68, ‘Pastoral’ (1808)
Alternative programme endings: WeberOberon (1826): Prayer; Storm; Cavatina / BeethovenEgmont, Op.84 (1810): Siegessymphonie

La Fura dels Baus
Dancers – Macarena Bravi, Luis Garcia, Tamara N’Dong, Quico Torrent
Stage design – Carlos Padrissa
Drawings/Scenogaphy – Mihael Milunovic
Costumes – Tamara Joksimovic
Technical director – Jaume Geau
Video technicians – Jordi Masso, Miquel Donat

Whenever one hears of a new Insula evening, there is a feeling of anticipation. These concerts (events, really) are like no other. Their danced Mozart Requiem in June last year, collaborating there with Yoann Bougeois, was unforgettable. Previously, Insula collaborated with the innovative Catalan group La Fura dels Baus in Haydn’s Creation (available on a Naxos DVD); here, it was to present an occasion to explore the relationship between man and Nature, culminating in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony implying the slow trudge of migrants. The second part of the programme is a Hymn to Nature in the form of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. There are then two endings possible, one optimistic, one pessimistic, and the one the audience hears is decided upon by voting via smartphone.

Which neatly brings in the use of smartphones throughout. Far from being a distraction and a gauge with which to determine the sophistication of an audience (‘is their attention span really so low that one has to check one’s phone?’) the phones were an integral part of the experience. We were asked to download an app (Kalliópé) and put our phones to airplane mode after we had selected a particular wi-fi provider and a particular channel, ‘Pastorale’, on the app. In doing so, we were effectively handing over control of our phones to an external source, from which were broadcast supplementary images, quotes relevant to the ongoing story or even, taking over the light of the camera and causing random phones to turn their lights on and off. Not only that, but at one point, while protagonists on stage were painting a surface in colours so it resembling a Jackson Pollock, we audience members got an opportunity to do the same as our smartphone screens became the colour hi-tech Etch-a-Sketch we never knew we wanted as kids.

There was certainly a lot going on, both onstage and with the technology. Throughout the performance, 360-degree projections, created by the multidisciplinary artist Mihael Milunovic in collaboration with Carlus Padreiss and La Fura dels Baus, projected images inspired by the idea of a forest. The stage was divided between vertical elements (of which more anon) and the horizontal, which symbolised man’s transformations of its environment.  Further unpicking the layers of this evening would be a privilege; one certainly hopes for a DVD or YouTube video in short order.

The first part began with Prometheus, who symbolised human destiny, offering the first storm (from Beethoven’s incidental music to the ballet Prometheus: apart form the Overture, it is incredibly rare to hear any of the incidental music these days). Insula’s performance was typically punchy, with Laurence Equilbey’s powerfully involved and ever-focused direction inspiring her players to ever greater heights.

Dramatically in this first part, four people, two men and two women, live in a Baobab tree (representing the natural environment of human beings). Initially living in harmony both with themselves and with Nature, mankind’s intrusions (deforestation, impure air and so on) eventually mean the tree is mercilessly toppled – representing mankind exceeding its limits in relation to the natural world. Forced from their home environment, they become migrants.

The music reflects the tempestuous nature of events via a sequence of storms that are separated by traditional songs from around the World, implying a call for inclusivity. The repertoire choice is fascinating. Reicha’s dramatic cantata Lenore (a setting of the ballad by Gottfried August Berger, and a work incidentally admired by Beethoven) concludes with a storm, played here with visceral alertness by Insula. Reicha is not a composer to under-estimate, as Ivan Ilić is reminding us with his series of discs of piano music on Chandos. Reicha’s aural imagination is huge, as this powerful snippet implies. The juxtaposition of this with some Aragonese traditional song was stark indeed.

Julius Rietz’s overture Hero und Leander is the epitome of mid-Romantic expressiveness and expansiveness. One might hear something of the serious side of Mendelssohn, perhaps, and Rietz may only be known in history books as the teacher of Sir Arthur Sullivan, but Hero und Leander reveals an impressive sense of scale, the D minor clouds beautifully evocative. The story itself tells of how a storm cruelly ends the love trysts of the two characters. There are some beautifully scored solos for woodwind, particularly just before the main, faster section of the overture begins, all of them despatched with real beauty. But it was the urgent nature of the drama that enthralled.

Traditional New Guinea songs separated the Rietz from the Weber: the Battle from Kampf und Sieg, a brass-drenched explosion of wrath augmented by percussion. The rawness of Insula’s authentic instruments was heard to full advantage here, with again traditional music (Ukrainian this time) offering maximal contrast.

This is the second time within weeks that the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony has been excerpted to fine effect (note that neither was of the gratuitous, dumbing-down variety). Around a week ago the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln at the Royal Festival Hall had included it as part of a superbly challenging exploration of Beethoven (click here); here, its trudge, more inexorable than slow, suggested refugees exiting their homeland. It has to be said that Equilbey’s performance was significantly more powerful as a musical experience than Roth’s in London. Then the exquisite soprano of Sophie Karthäuser gifted us with a supremely expressive performance of Fanny Hensel’s 1832 dramatic scene Hero und Leander, Equilbey’s forces were terrifically evocative of the protagonist’s angst (the text is by Wilhelm Hensel). This is an extended piece – two recitatives and two arias – that ends with a splendidly climactic high note for the soloist, beautifully given here. Karthäuser sang this as if it was the greatest scena ever written; how very convincing she was.

In the second part they decide to return to their homeland. They realise the potential for improvement to our habitat if change is embraced, inspired by the sounds of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, here in a performance of much radiance and care. Equilbey’s ear for texture is brilliant – it comes from an authenticist perspective, so the more acidic woodwind, or stopped – or half-stopped – notes on the horns, become beautifully colouristic.

And then came the choice of ending, by mobile phone vote. Was it to be optimism or pessimism? Optimism won, occasioning a fabulous performance of the Battle Symphony from Egmont (which material Beethoven also uses as the conclusion to the Egmont Overture).

The encore was, I suppose, logical. If we opt for optimism, the curious will want to hear what the pessimists would have got. The true optimists might wish to dismiss such thoughts, but if they do, they are eschewing musical riches for the philosophical high ground. We heard the alternative ending, nonetheless. Karthäuser gave a fabulously glowing and pure account of Agathe’s Prayer (‘Und ob die Wolke’) and a truly intense, expressive and personal Act III aria ‘Trauere, mein Herz’ from Oberon separated by yet another tempest.

The sheer scope of this evening, performed without interval, just with a short two-minute pause between Parts I and II, was tremendous. All credit to the story-telling abilities of the phenomenal dancers and to the richness of the staging: the level of concentration throughout from the performers was utterly remarkable. The message was clear, and urgent, making the music of the nineteenth century blisteringly relevant. And let us not forget the repertoire choices: how often might one hear the Fanny Hensel, or the Weber arias, performed to such a standard? The standard of instrumental performance was of the highest echelon throughout, as were the contributions of the dancers telling us, in movement, this tale of destruction and, on this particular evening, hope. The performance was to be repeated the very next night: one wonders what ending the audience plumped for?

Colin Clarke

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