Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Music of Today – Grisey: Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil
Sunday, November 30, 2008 Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Gérard Grisey (or rather his music) has done well at the Southbank Centre during recent weeks. Following on from the UK premiere of his epic sequence Les espaces acoustiques came another chance to hear his last work, the mesmeric song-cycle the 40-minute “Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil” (1998).
That a work dwelling so intently and profoundly on death and on 'last things' has attracted a degree of mystique, given that the composer died suddenly (though entirely unexpectedly) soon after when only 52, is inevitable if secondary to its musical worth. The texts themselves evolve naturally from metaphysical to graphic depictions of death, all elaborated with powerful emotional directness. The haunting word repetition in 'The Death of the Angel' quickly intensifies through the piercing unisons of voice and trumpet, before the ancient Egyptian roll-call of 'The Death of Civilization' wrests its expressive clarity out of semantic mystery. Following the becalmed poignancy of 'The Death of the Voice', the apocalyptic imagery of 'The Death of Humanity' – itself initiated through the spellbinding interplay of percussion representing a metaphorical deluge – culminates in the emergence of a more personal dimension; surveying what has gone before from a tranquil though intensely 'felt' remove.
The work made an indelible impression at its London premiere almost a decade ago, and did so again here. If Barbara Hannigan (who made such an impact in one of the SBC’s Nono concerts last year) did not quite convey the overall range of vocal idioms with which Grisey characterises each section, then her responsiveness to the music's demands was not in doubt, while Pascal Rophé drew committed playing from members of the Philharmonia Orchestra (even though the 'deluge' sequence itself sounded a little tentative compared to performances by the London Sinfonietta).
A welcome, indeed necessary inclusion in “Music of Today” (the Philharmonia’s early-evening and free initiative, this last musical masterpiece of the twentieth-century seems to have taken on an importance such as makes it crucial to the beginning of the twenty-first.