United Kingdom Varèse, Haddad, Ravel, Bach/Benjamin, Schoenberg: Anna Prohaska (soprano), Ensemble Modern / Sir George Benjamin (conductor). Wigmore Hall, London, 12.9.2023. (CC)
Varèse – Octandre for Seven Winds and Double Bass
Saed Haddad (b.1972) – Mirage, Mémoire, Mystère for Violin and String Trio
Ravel – Trios Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
Bach (arr. Benjamin) – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080: Canon in Hypodiapason; Contrapunctus 7
Schoenberg – Kammersymphonie No.1, Op.9
This concert offered a rare opportunity to hear music of both twentieth and twenty-first centuries, plus a contemporary take on a Baroque master, performed at the very highest level. As with groups such as the London Sinfonietta and Klangforum Wien, when ‘gnarly’ music of our recent times is performed at its best, something shifts, new levels of meaning make themselves known. And so it was here.
One thing one could never accuse composer Edgard Varèse of is compromise. Written in 1923, his Octandre is utterly modernist in demeanour. Although it does not include any of Varèse’s beloved percussion, it speaks of high dissonance and painfully expressive lines characterised by disjunct intervals. Each of its three sections is launched by a solo instrument (oboe, piccolo, bassoon). While certain passages might have tested the Wigmore Hall’s acoustic, it was the beauty of the music that shone, particularly one passage featuring bassoon (Johannes Schwarz) and double bass (Paul Canno). Christian Hommel’s opening on oboe was perfectly done, and there has to be a special mention for Hugo Queirós’s beautifully-toned clarinet contributions.
The music of Jordanian. composer Saed Haddad (born 1972) is new to me. The scoring is that of string quartet, but the designation that it is for ‘violin and string trio’ indicates a specific distribution of import. Furthermore, the solo violin line is split between first and second violins. Just as the Varèse was in three sections with structural articulators (specific unaccompanied solos), here it is snap pizzicatos that separate the music’s three panels. The restless Mirage seems to have a dark undercurrent, with the high violin lines heard frequently in echo. It is Arabian music that informs the central Mémoire before the longest section, Mystère finds the solo violin in exploratory mode, moving finally towards what the composer states is ‘oblivion’. In a very different way from Varèse, Haddad tests his players’ virtuosity (in particular the second violin at one point, who offers a crazy counterpoint to the solo). Haddad’s atmospherics are highly impressive: twilit, silvery timbres that haunt long afterwards.
This is not Ensemble Modern’s first encounter with Haddad either: their recording of his L’éthique de la lumière conducted by Franck Ollu is beautiful. Haddad’s work is refractive and elusive; as is that of Maurice Ravel, whose Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé is scored for two flutes, two clarinets, piano, string quartet and soloist. There was no doubting that this Ravel was the highlight of the concert: Anna Prohaska has a voice that simply has to be heard live. Like, perhaps, Jessye Norman, recordings can only convey some of the magic. There was an extraordinarily haunting quality to Prohaska’s performance of Ravel’s Mallarmé settings, her voice utterly individual and yet capable of morphing into an instrumental line as the performance explored Ravel’s timbral equivalences.
The piano gestures at the end of the first song, Soupir (Sigh) performed by Ueli Wiget, were perfect, as were the expressive ‘sighs’ on strings that open Placet futile (Futile supplication). The detail in the more animated section of this second song (‘Comme je ne suis pas ton bichon embarbé’; ‘Since I am not your bearded lapdog’) was utterly remarkable, George Benjamin reminding us that crystalline clarity lies at the heart of successful Ravel performance. The sheer control of the players over their instruments and that of Prohaska over her silky voice was placed at the service of Ravel’s whispered, elusive masterpiece, nowhere more so than in the glassy chords of the final ‘Surgi de la croupe et du bond’ (‘Risen from the crupper and leap’).
There was one encore, but what an encore: Prohaska was joined by pianist Ueli Wiget for Varèse’s 1906 song Un grand sommeil noir, heard in a simply ravishing performance.
The short second half began with Benjamin’s arrangements of two movements from Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Scored for eight players, it was fascinating to hear just how happy the performance of the Canon in Hypodiapason was (in this, the horn takes on quite a solo role superbly done by Saar Berger); it was complemented by a superb account of Contrapunctus 7; rarely have string pizzicatos sounded so clearly, rarely have violin harmonics sounded so purely. The arrangements themselves are deft and confident, the work of a master.
Finally, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9, for me the sole disappointment of the evening. This was undeniably exciting, albeit on a surface level, as a performance, primarily because of its velocity. It was relentless – there was little space for the music to breathe, the whole performance a testament to the evident superhuman virtuosity of the Ensemble Modern, but strangely uninvolving. Breathless in extremis, and sadly not a performance for me.
It is the Ravel songs that were the standouts here, with the bracing Varèse Octandre following closely behind.