United Kingdom A Response to Climate Change – Dies Irae: Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin) RSNO Chamber Group, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Students and Vocal Ensemble. New Auditorium, Royal Concert Hall, 10.11.2021. (GT)
Giacinto Scelsi – Okanagon
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber– Battalia
George Crumb – Black Angels
Antonio Lotti – Crucifixus, Improvisation
John Dowland – Lachrimae Antiguae Novae
Galina Ustvolskaya– Komposition No.2: Dies irae
This concert – the first of two scheduled for the same evening was to observe the holding of COP26 in Glasgow on the effects of global environmental changes. Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a world-class instrumentalist who has long campaigned on ecological issues and curated this programme based on the campaign to save the world from global warming. She is ambassador for the Swiss charity Terre des Hommes a child relief agency and is an enthusiastic protagonist of new music and leading projects such as ongoing performances of Pierrot Lunaire.
The programme had as its centrepiece extracts from the anti-war Black Angels by George Crumb intermingled with Heinrich Biber’s Battalia with its evocations of war. The longest piece of the concert was the 1973 Komposition No.2: Dies irae by Galina Ustvolskaya – a pupil of Shostakovich. There is nothing remotely similar in her music to her teacher’s compositional style for she sought her own path, and indeed Shostakovich informed her, ‘It is not you who is influenced by me, but I am under your influence.’ The St Petersburg composer Boris Tischenko said that her music was like a laser beam which could cut through metal.
The concert was enshrouded in darkness as we heard a tape of Giacinto Scelsi’s Okanagon on loudspeakers – creating an idiom for the evening – as the musicians entered and forming a semicircle with a harpsichord in the centre, the Biber Battalia opened on a brightly played Presto, before ‘The Dissolute Assembly of Humorous Folks’ brought hilarity and wild cries from the players, in which we heard a quodlibet of German, Czech and Slovak folk songs colourfully embroidered into the music, before the third movement (Presto) brought more graciousness to the performance.
Crumb’s second movement from his Black Angels (‘Sounds of Bones and Flutes’) introduced another dimension, experiencing, as the composer said, ‘a journey into the soul’ with surreal effects from the electronically enhanced violins and in the extended threnody we heard a quotation from the Andante con moto of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. Again, we returned to two movements from Biber’s Battalia, a Marsch in which paper was passed across the strings creating a rumbling effect imitating the fife and drums in battle, and then a brisk enlightening section in the sixth (Presto). Crumb’s ‘Dance Macabre’ from Black Angels brought a wild theatrical transformation with Kopatchinskaja starting a foghorn, with the other players thumping drums and creating loud noises from tam-tams and a maraca.
In a brief interlude, Biber’s ‘Aria’ was performed by Alexey Kiseliov on the cello, it was otherworldly and mesmerising, followed by Crumb’s ‘Devil Music’, where we heard the string players playing in the viol-consort manner producing a bizarre sound effect, and then Biber’s ‘The Battle’, in which Biber uses a percussive pizzicato using the wood of their bows against the strings, imitating cannon shots. This was quickly followed by Crumb’s ‘God-music’, and its strange otherworldly sounds in the playing of the bows on crystal glasses, which led directly into Biber’s Adagio (‘Lament of the Wounded Musketeers’) with yet more dissonance – though here it was full of pathos in the eighth movement from Battalia. This central part of the concert was closed by Crumb’s ‘Threnody II’ from Black Angels. The theatrical element closed with the musicians placing their stands on the floor while we heard an offstage choir sing Lotti’s Crucifixus, and Dowland’s Lachrimae Antiguae Novae, after which trombone players entered and walked through the auditorium playing a brief two-note idea before retiring backstage where the chords slowly died away.
Again the hall was in complete darkness as the musicians entered bearing a long coffin-like box which was placed centre stage. Eight double bass players formed a semi-circle and with accompaniment from the piano we heard the Komposition No.2 by Ustvolskaya in which we perceived tone clusters and sparse harmonic textures in repetitive unchanging rhythms which were gradually interrupted by increasingly loud thuds from the hammers struck by Kopatchinskaja becoming more intense, and more violent throughout this almost spellbinding piece of music. This mesmerising threnody came to a close with the Gregorian Hymn, the Dies irae, heard as a group of students entered with ticking clocks which slowly but slowly stopped leaving a ticking clock centre stage clicking until it expired.
This was a surreal and often harrowing experience, and at times one wondered what visitors from another planet would have thought of this music – has the world gone mad – or is something amazing happening? Certainly, much of the music by the avant-garde is aimed at scandalising, poking fun or goading their audiences, however, this concert was deadly serious. In her programme note, Patricia Kopatchinskaja asks us ‘How much time do we have left.’ That we need concerts like this is essential, and since this concert was playing largely to the converted, it will need much more to overcome the ignorance and greed that has caused this terrible threat to our world.