Musikfest Berlin: Klangforum Wien excel in new works by Saunders and Aperghis  

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin [5] – Saunders and Aperghis: Joonas Ahonen (piano), Krassimir Sterev (accordion), Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, Klangforum Wien / Emilio Pomàrico (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 4.9.2020. (MB)

Klangforum Wien © Monika Karczmarczyk/Berliner Festspiele

Rebecca Saunders – Flesh, for solo accordion with recitation (2018); Sole, Trio in F-sharp for mobile accordion, percussion, and piano (2019); to an utterance – study, for solo piano (2020, world premiere); Scar, for 15 soloists and conductor (2018/19)

Georges Aperghis –  Der Lauf des Lebens, for 6 voices and ensemble (2019, world premiere) 

Two concerts from Klangforum Wien: one a world premiere, the other including a world premiere and its ‘early music’ coming from 2018. New music indeed, then, however distant 2018 – Theresa May: remember her? – may seem to those of us bewildered and exhausted by the current plague. I hope I shall be forgiven for any errors I might make, confronted with such a wealth of new sounds and their organisation, without so much as a programme note, coronavirus precluding such, let alone a score. Is that not, however, an ideal way for us to approach new music, whether ‘New Music’ or not? It was certainly welcome exercise for ears starved of such experience over the preceding months.

First, we heard works by Rebecca Saunders: not only one of the most important composers of her generation, but also one of my favourites. It certainly seems another world since I flew to Munich last June to see and hear her receive the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize. Indeed, some of the music we heard today had then yet to be written. The opening Flesh, however, had. We hear much about embodiment nowadays, but here the physicality of Saunders’ work and Krassimir Sterev’s astounding performance as accordionist and reciter could not have been more physical: quite erasing, like Molly Bloom’s monologue itself, any thought of dualism between mind and matter. This is not ‘programme music’, certainly not in the sense of mere portrayal, but it was difficult not to think or rather to experience the piece’s progress in extremely direct as well as more indirect terms. Squeezing, shuddering, rattling, shouting, screaming: this was a musical performance of musical material.

Sole for accordion, percussion, and piano was taken attacca, its predecessor necessarily influencing our reception, yet beautifully setting the scene, the next piece stealing in to our consciousness in the after-glow or -shock of Flesh. Resonance and even ritual – perhaps closer to Stockhausen than I might have expected – enabled pitch to be heard both ‘in itself’ and as the key to transformation of other parameters, such as timbre, rhythm, and dynamics. Put another way, post-Debussy and post-Webern tendencies united, without ever remotely sounding like Boulez or any other such forerunners. There were no electronics; yet, as so often in Saunders’ work, I could have sworn I heard them.

Next, Joonas Ahonen gave the first performance of to an utterance – study, for solo piano. Its opening pitted bass resonances, later spreading across the instrument, against glissandi and similar devices: some more scampering, some more furious, again in a not entirely un-Debussyan fabric (at least to my ears). Listening, one created and dissolved new aural hierarchies; and yet again, the sheer physicality of an outstanding performance proved just as crucial to one’s experience. Ahonen’s commanding virtuosity left one in no doubt one was hearing what one should be. Chases were as furious, perhaps even more so, as or than anything in the previous night’s Rihm, Jagden und Formen. Ultimately, the piece seemed to me very much to take its part in the distinguished line of (extended) piano studies, growing into something emotionally and intellectually more all-encompassing. Were ‘symphonic’ not so obviously clichéd a misnomer, I might have been tempted to use it with less caution.

The start of Scar, with its opening soft drum tattoos, dark pitched sounds emerging therefrom, put me in mind of Berg’s Op.6 Pieces. The tricks one’s ears and such resourceful writing can play, not to mention the ensemble performance under Emilio Pomàrico, convinced me at one point I had heard a voice. Slides, dark flashes, an aural landscape in their shadows, a liminal zone between tearing and torn: this was certainly the world of scars. Flights of fancy or of flesh took wing in a process of persistent metamorphosis, leading to dazzling climax and return to the opening material, transformed by our experience of listening.

In the second concert, the ensemble and Pomàrico were joined by the six voices of Neuevocalisten Stuttgart, for the premiere of Georges Aperghis’s Der Lauf des Lebens. Words, at least my words, are still more problematic an approximation here than usual, but I sensed something of a distinction between the dramatic use to which words were put in Saunders and a more ‘purely musical’ – to resurrect a choice vintage chestnut –  approach to their qualities from Aperghis. Accordion at the opening (the indefatigable Sterev) made for a nice link between the two worlds, but Klangforum Wien and the (initially) female Stuttgart voices immediately took our experience in a very different direction. A riot of sound, not without resonances from jazz, raucous riffs and all, put me a little in mind of Berio at times; that, however, was just me finding my bearings, for this was exuberance very much on its own terms. Vocal parts, sung and spoken, solo and ensemble, may or may not have made ‘verbal’ sense, yet who cared? Both work and performance offered a strong sense of a greater whole over an hour-long span, despite or perhaps on account of a host of mood swings and other transformations. In such winning superfluity, the overriding, most welcome sense was of fun, even of Alice in Wonderland-like wonder.

Mark Berry

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