"What is worse, the physical elimination of a revolutionary, or the burial of his ideas under a mountain of bullshit?" So ran a sentence from a communiqué issued by the Defend Walter Benjamin Campaign, and handed out prior to this one-off performance of Brian Ferneyhough's Shadowtime at the London Coliseum (a run at Sadler's Wells one of five co-commissioners this October having fallen through).
Whatever it intended, this broadside did not translate into any disruption of the actual performance which proceeded in the manner of thoughtful disinterest not uncommon at performances of new music in the UK, with even those who left before the end doing so in a relatively apologetic manner.
In fact, any one at all familiar with Ferneyhough's music is likely to have been most surprised by the fact that such a rigorously 'ideas' composer should have attempted opera at all. Not that this is a stage-work in any definable tradition, even that of the rappresentazione
drama of which he has made mention. Indeed, since its commission during 1999, Shadowtime has evolved as a sequence of more or less independent pieces which constitute the seven scenes of the evening-length work (some of which were previewed at the London Sinfonietta's concert marking Ferneyhough's 60th birthday in February
last year. Broadly speaking, these scenes follow a trajectory from the actual to the abstract, one in which the conceptual emphasis looks inward to an increasing, and increasingly rarefied degree.
The libretto, by American literary eminence Charles Bernstein, might be felt either to penetrate the complexities of Benjamin-thought, or to evade it through intellectual conceit worthy of the heyday of post-Modernism. As it happens, the First and Fifth Scenes, in holding the larger structure together, cannot be performed separately and first impressions suggest that, from a musical and theatrical perspective (remembering this was a concert airing), these are the least successful in performance.
At its heart a "prelude in experienced reality", Scene One evokes that fateful night at the Spanish border in September 1940 when Benjamin, told that he must return to Nazi-occupied France, chooses suicide in the face of ever-narrowing options. But the historical incident is itself superimposed with five other situations, Benjamin conversing with figures from his own and the wider literary past, in a multi-layered synthesis of the real and imagined which neither text nor music succeeds in opening out on even an abstractly dramatic level. Similarly in Scene Five, in which Benjamin's 'avatar' encounters eleven variously historical and mythical figures ranging from a border guard, via Hitler and Einstein, to the Golem and a double-headed combination of Marx's Karl and Groucho who interrogate him to the ground-plan of musical forms spanning the Medieval to the Romantic eras. Yet what might well be evident conceptually has here failed to realise itself in any way that could be considered provocative.
The remaining scenes whether or not they further the underlying concept in the way Ferneyhough and Bernstein intend are more successful judged purely as music. Scene Two, a concertante piece for guitar and thirteen players, captures Ferneyhough's musical language in all of its formidable yet poetic rigour an understated yet telling entry-point into more abstract realms, with the resourceful playing of Mats Scheidegger a constant delight. Scene Three focuses on the choral component here the dependably excellent Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart in a series of thirteen canons of variously aphoristic or phoneticised texts which dwell on metaphysical issues to a determined yet diverting and often playful degree, while Scene Four is a 'shadow play' for speaking pianist whose tense and often anxious philosophical questioning is complemented (at least when staged) by his attire as from a Las Vegas piano bar; Nicolas Hodges bringing off the Wittgenstein-cum-Liberace double-act with aplomb.
The final scenes draw ostensibly on the image of the Angel in Dürer's Melancholia engraving, as the embodiment of Benjamin's Angel of History. The seven tableaux of Scene Six, which range from the reworking of Heine poems to epigrams and syntactic rotations, brings Hodges (sans
piano) again to the fore: verbal sense being effectively (if a little didactically) counterpointed with that of musical expression in a way that makes possible Scene Seven. Here emerges what Ferneyhough describes as a non-Christian requiem, in which the chorus gradually combines with electronic transformations of the composer's voice so not only linguistic coherence, but also musical continuity is dissolved: such that at the close, only a sense of time transformed though not necessarily transcended remains.
How intrinsically successful Shadowtime is depends whether it is judged by anything that approaches existent operatic criteria, and also the manner in which the body of thought that constitutes Walter Benjamin's legacy is intensified or diluted according to viewpoint. Certainly anyone motivated by his apparent "fusion of Messianic Judaism and Revolutionary Socialism" is likely to feel short-changed by the non-committal (or should that be non-committed?) nature of the enterprise: others may question
whether such qualities are the business of artistic expression and, in doing so, consider whether Ferneyhough, if not having reinvented opera for the present, has put forward a concept that acts as a framework for music which is rarely less than characteristic, and never lacking expressive impact.
The present performance discreetly lit by Marie-Christine Soma and with Jurjen Hempel directing the excellent Nieuw Ensemble with incisive confidence ought to be judged a success: catch it on BBC Radio 3 on 29 October, or when issued on the NMC label, and decide for yourself whether it inspires an enlightened provocation or a taking to the streets in support of an ideal cruelly misappropriated.