Feature Review: BBC Symphony Orchestra – Total Immersion: Dutch Master Louis Andriessen [13 February 2016; part of M is for Man, Music and Mystery]

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

Louis Andriessen
Photograph: Francesca Patella

Barbican Hall & Milton Court Concert Hall, London
Saturday, February 13, 2016

Barbican Hall
Louis Andriessen
De Volharding

Guildhall New Music Ensemble
Geoffrey Paterson (piano)

Milton Court Concert Hall
Bach, arr. Andriessen
Prelude No.24 in B minor, BWV869
Bach, arr. Stravinsky
Prelude and Fugue No.24 in B minor, BWV869
Three Pieces for String Quartet
Steve Reich
Andriessen, arr. van Prooijen
… miserere … [UK premiere of this arrangement]

Allison Bell (soprano)
Britten Sinfonia
Andrew Gourlay

Barbican Hall
De Stijl
Andriessen, arr. Rundell
Rosa’s Horses [UK premiere]
Mysteriën [UK premiere]

Fanny Alofs (speaker)
Synergy Vocals
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Clark Rundell

Clark Rundell
Photograph: operaomnia.co.uk

Listening to his relaxed and understated tones over the course of this latest BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion Day, it might have seemed hard to believe that Louis Andriessen (born 1939) was not so long ago a figure who inspired equal amounts of devotion and repellence on the contemporary-music scene. Not that he has stood still as a composer; indeed one of the most valuable aspects of these concerts was in demonstrating the partial extent of an evolution that stretches back six decades and has taken in serial, experimental and polemical thinking on its way to an enlightened post-modernism.

The lunchtime concert by the Guildhall New Music Ensemble was a case in point, featuring a brace of works that complemented each other ideally while confirming the innate flexibility of Andriessen’s approach. Hout (1991) focuses on canonic interplay, the quartet (tenor saxophone, marimba, guitar and piano) giving rise to dextrous linear expansion where unison melodic writing prevents at the same time as it enables change. Zilver (1994) then expands to a septet whose separate groups (flute, clarinet, violin and cello against vibraphone, marimba and piano) promote melodic as opposed to chordal writing, with the canonic aspect providing both a formal framework and expressive clarification. The angularity of one piece is in incisive contrast to the elegance of the other, yet with both sharing the same creative modus operandi.

Both works received highly capable performances (a few percussive slips in the latter piece notwithstanding), then the massed saxophones, trumpets and trombones of GNME took to the stage for De Volharding (1972). One of Andriessen’s most (in)famous statements, its dozen musicians stood in a left-to-right line and doubtless spoke as much of provocation as of ‘perseverance’ to early audiences, yet its progress – from chordal implacability, via harmonic intransigency, to melodic immediacy – is in itself an exemplar for that change, in music as in society, which composer and musicians were intent on furthering. However these performers viewed it, there was no doubt as to their unflagging commitment – as spurred on by Geoffrey Paterson’s incisive groove – throughout a piece that has lost none of its pungency or power.

The afternoon concert by the Britten Sinfonia presented a rather different side of Andriessen’s music. Not least among its attractions was inclusion of the 24th Prelude and Fugue from Book One (1722) of J. S. Bach’s ‘48’ – one of four such pieces that were Stravinsky’s last creative undertaking (in 1969) but which remained unpublished until a decade ago. Edited by the late Christopher Hogwood, who realised the fragmentary viola line with which Stravinsky enriched the three-part texture, it made appealing listening when heard as a string ensemble in its elegant pathos.

Synergy Vocals
Photograph: www.synergyvocals.com

Preceding it was the same Fugue as arranged (in 2006) by Andriessen, and with a rather more interventionist realisation of the viola part; given here by a string quartet which returned for the Three Pieces (1914) that Stravinsky wrote between projects though which – in their respective focus on rhythms, gestures and harmonies – sound as trailblazing as any of his larger works. This was hardly something applicable to Steve Reich’s Duet (1994), a miniature for two violins and strings that eloquently diffuses its canonic practice within shimmering harmonic consonance.

The first half ended with … miserere … (2007), the fourth work in which Andriessen had had recourse to the string quartet – here deployed with a restraint that throws its allusions to Renaissance, popular and sacred music (the form is that of Allegri’s eponymous work) into gentle relief. Not that the string writing is without its overall light and shade, especially when heard in an astute arrangement by Marijn van Prooijen that places the piece firmly in a lineage of works for string orchestra which subtly extend the remit of their chamber originals.

After the interval, Dances (1992) found Andriessen at his most urbane and understated – at least during its whimsical opening movement, though the addition of a voice in extracts from Joan Grant’s The Winged Pharaoh gave the next two a much greater emotional ebb and flow; the sentiments confide of isolation in togetherness creating an intensity such as spilled over into the finale with its limpid interplay of tuned percussion and strings. Allison Bell was an affecting soloist, with Andrew Gourlay drawing responsive playing from the Britten Sinfonia.

The evening concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra featured three works (or music from) that together afforded a viable overview of Andriessen’s output over almost three decades. De Stijl (1985) became the third part of his full-length stage-work De Materie – its centring upon the influential Dutch art movement evident in the outer sections that sketch the principles of ‘expressive mathematics’. Clark Rundell secured a visceral response (with the female quartet of Synergy Vocals a little lost in the mix), but the central recollections of artist Piet Mondrian suffered under-balancing of its offstage piano (to the rear-left of the Stalls), with Fanny Alofs’s feisty spoken contribution cut adrift from its musical context. The climactic ‘funk’ section had the requisite panache, though the calm postlude sounded merely inert rather than speculative.

Andriessen’s ensuing stage-work, Rosa: The Death of a Composer (1994) has seldom been revived – no doubt through its overtly risqué subject-matter, yet this score features some of its composer’s most visceral instrumental writing and it was highly appropriate that Rundell fashioned its extended dance sections into a stand-alone concert suite. Rosa’s Horses (2010) is an engrossing score, not so much encapsulating the content of the opera as distilling its violent (in every sense) essence into a 25-minute sequence as virtuosic orchestrally as it is unsparing emotionally. A range of unlikely elements – from Spaghetti-Western overtones to an allusion to Brahms’s ‘Cradle Song’ – are encountered in its course, with the overriding impression being one of unstoppable momentum as was conveyed here to spellbinding effect.

After which, Mysteriën (2013) could hardly be other than underwhelming. Yet this half-hour piece, only the second for a (relatively) conventional orchestra from Andriessen’s maturity, was a fitting conclusion to the day as a whole. Taking its inspiration from the writings of Thomas á Kempis, the six continuous sections are each preceded by epigraphs that inform (rather than explain) the musical content. Meditative and inward by turns, four of these sections suggest that the composer’s approach to the orchestra – upper strings tending to shadow woodwind and brass lines, with lower strings as if chained to a proverbial bass-line – has not evolved as he might have supposed, but the microtonally-tuned harps of the ethereal third section and rapt apotheosis of the final one ensure the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Rundell again secured a fine response from the BBCSO, bringing the concert to its intriguing close. On this basis, Andriessen’s new stage-work, Theatre of the World (due at Los Angeles Opera later this year), promises to be an intriguing further step as gets closer to his ninth decade.

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