Feature Review: Transcendent – The Music of Helmut Lachenmann

Written by: Richard Whitehouse


String Quartet No.3 (Grido)

Harpham Quartet [Anna Harpham & Ciaran McCabe (violins), Laura Holt (viola) & Lawrence Durkin (cello)]

Allegro sostenuto

James Meldrum (clarinet/bass clarinet), Aoife Nic Athlaoich (cello) & Hiroaki Takenouchi (piano)

Consolation I

RCM Choir & London Voices

O Duo [Nicholas Reed & Mark Wagstaff (percussion)]

Sofi Jeannin


Meng Yang Pan (piano)


Gabriella Swallow (cello)

Ein Kinderspiel

Helmut Lachenmann (piano)


Kontrakadenz [UK premiere]

Noriko Kawai (piano)

RCM Symphony Orchestra

Pierre-André Valade

Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung)

Concertini [London premiere]

London Sinfonietta

Sound Intermedia

Martyn Brabbins

The Royal College of Music and Queen Elizabeth Hall, London – Monday 13 November to Monday 20 November 2006

“Transcendent” as a value judgement rather than a state of being is a concept largely restricted to English-speaking countries, and one wonders how Helmut Lachenmann felt about a retrospective of his music being presented under this heading. Not that the 71-year-old composer stands on ceremony when it comes to discussing either his music or the thinking behind it; indeed, anyone who spoke with him during his residence at the Royal College of Music in London will have encountered a modest and unassuming figure – anxious that his work not be misunderstood and apologetic should his explanations not readily be grasped.

This was the impression during the first evening’s conversation with Gillian Moore, while the intensive chamber and piano masterclasses on the following two afternoons confirmed the desire to have his music performed according to the score (whose exactness of playing techniques should not be underestimated) was of relative importance in capturing the ‘sound’ of each individual piece and hence the spirit – questing and provocative by turns – that pervades them: ‘transcendent’, surely, in the most intrinsic sense.

Read any of the (so far) few English commentaries on Lachenmann’s music and the notion of a left-wing, anti-bourgeois composer is hard to avoid. Certainly the present concerts were attended by a fair number of hair-shirted Modernists and old-style Socialists – intent, no doubt, on reconnecting with that ‘nostalgia for the future’ which Luigi Nono, Lachenmann’s teacher in the late-1950s and an implicit ‘presence’ in his music, coined in relation to one of his own works. Yet for all that Lachenmann is avowedly anti-establishment, to the extent that he has decried the empire-building tendencies among several of his older contemporaries, his music comes with none of the political ‘baggage’ that has undermined the efforts of numerous other major composers (German and otherwise) of his generation.

Rather his stance has been one of renewing the classical tradition by re-appropriating it for the ongoing present, divesting it of any period (and hence passé) aesthetic trappings to focus anew on its potential to communicate sense through sound. Once out on a limb in a German culture for long intent on denying both its musical and political past, and with little chance of being accepted in a British culture which tends to follow belatedly and by example, Lachenmann is now the most respected senior composer in his home country and, to judge by the large, enthusiastic and by no means student-only audiences for these concerts, poised to have a significant and hopefully beneficial impact on new music here also. Certainly the collective effort by RCM musicians prior to the London Sinfonietta concert was a long way from ‘real’ Lachenmann, but its willingness to take on board and explore his ideas was itself a positive step.

Little of Lachenmann’s pre-1970 music was featured. Inclusion of his first acknowledged piece, the Schubert Variations for piano, would have demonstrated that – like Stockhausen – his thinking arose from highly traditional beginnings (as one might expect from the pupil of such a craftsman as Johann Nepomuk David). Moreover, most of his works from the first-half of the 1960s are withdrawn, denying the opportunity to hear his working through and presumably rejecting the precepts of Darmstadt serialism; though Wiegenmusik (1963) – with its wonderfully unstudied amalgam of sound and resonance, at least as rendered by Meng Yang Pan – finds Lachenmann in the process of doing so. The inclusion (twice) of Consolations I (1968), in which a sombrely existential text by Ernst Töller is semantically atomised, Nono-style, and distributed across choral-writing that integrates vividly with a dynamic percussion component, was equally welcome – especially in the visceral account conducted by Sofi Jeannin – though a more personal vocal idiom was something that Lachenmann only achieved later and employed sparingly thereafter.

The turn of the 1970s is when Lachenmann may, compositionally-speaking, be said to have come of age. Admittedly the instrumental studies from this time can leave the impression of mere novelties, but with Gabriella Swallow effortlessly mastering the extended cello techniques of Pression (1970) (and Wakako Kamiyama surprising herself with her nonchalant take on the supra-keyboard writing of Guero (1970) at the piano workshop), the musical validity of such pieces was not in doubt. Much attention had been attracted by Kontrakadenz (1971) – given twice in the second half of the “Lachenmann for Orchestra” concert and which, through addition of electric guitars, transistor radios, ping-pong balls and metal bath-tubs to an already diverse orchestra, has the reputation of an all-out assault on this institution. What the RCM Symphony Orchestra’s performances, finely prepared by Pierre-André Valade, conveyed was a tautly-structured work where division between sound and noise has been neatly elided – resulting in a piece that functions equally well as aesthetic entity and cultural observation: just like Ravel’s La valse, in fact.

The scale of Lachenmann’s compositions from the 1970s and early 1980s makes their wider inclusion possible only in the most inclusive retrospective, such as the present festival was not designed to be. Better to include a work such as Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung), from 1984, which is representative of where its composer had reached on approaching his fiftieth year. This exploration of the relationship between ‘movement’ and ‘paralysis’ may indeed be “angst-ridden” (the composer’s description) in its constant nearness to breaking-point and in its fractured allusions to a tenuous musical past, but its rhythmic and harmonic continuity – whether actual or implied – achieves exhilarating momentum, while the recourse to unorthodox techniques no longer claims attention as such but accentuates the feeling of a parallel yet integral discourse: one impinging on the listening conscience to direct thinking as might the modulation process in a tonal composition.

Two days earlier, the composer himself had performed – in self-effacing but concentrated fashion – Ein Kinderspiel (1980): seven short and pianistically simple, though far from naïve, pieces that home-in on specific technical procedures so as make the instrument ‘his’ alone. Music, furthermore, whose quizzical allusion to musical traits from earlier eras evokes a child-like dimension, while also offering pointers towards ways in which Lachenmann could admit the past into his envisaging of the future.

Perhaps the most potent manifestation of that future is Ausklang (1985) – Lachenmann’s largest concert work, and the one in which he makes explicit his belonging to a constantly-evolving tradition. Neither concerto nor symphony, the work partakes of both genres: not so much reinventing them as creating a piece ‘sui generis’ from their fusion. Revealingly, it takes its title from the penultimate section of Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie (with which it has been successfully coupled in concert) – a work whose temporal situation between Romanticism and Modernism is paralleled by that of Ausklang between Modernism and a Post-Modernism within which many once-radical procedures, Lachenmann’s included, were atrophying.

Taking its departure from the idea of ‘resounding’, one with its own inherent transcendence, the work unfolds over four large sections – these approximating to a first movement, slow movement, scherzo and finale – and it is the degree to which the material plays on one’s expectations of such archetypes, notably a final section where the cadenza is superimposed onto its unfolding, that gives this piece its sense of familiarity from within a new musical context. Ausklang was masterfully rendered by Noriko Kawai (her premiere of James Dillon’s Andromeda at this year’s Proms making for a pertinent comparison), and the RCM Symphony Orchestra responded with real conviction to Valade in music that does not so much tear up the rulebook as transcend absolute rules altogether.

Ausklang is also significant in bringing to a close the sequence of orchestral works with soloist that Lachenmann had composed over the previous decade.

Chamber and instrumental music has been a prominent feature of his output since then, with Allegro sostenuto (1989) a fine instance of his ability to create large-scale structures that unselfconsciously evoke precedents while succeeding audibly on their own terms. It helped that the performance, by post-graduate students from the RCM, was finely attuned to the work’s composing-out of its form as it evolves – a quality that might otherwise be hindered by the antagonistic medium, here aiding comprehension thanks to the musicians’ sense of ensemble.

The string quartet is nonetheless a far more ‘user-friendly’ medium: Lachenmann’s contributions have emerged at regular junctures, with the Third Quartet ‘Grido’, from 2001, his most inclusive in technique and diverse in expression. For all its temporal fluidity, the musical follow-through – across five interrelated phases rather than independent sections – is not one of reprise, but of a cumulative intensification. The result is a wide-ranging yet unified span which exudes completeness at every level – keenly dispatched in a sensitive and assured account by the Harpham Quartet, even if the music’s overall pitch-sense could have been more consistently conveyed: something that the Arditti Quartet had been at pains to secure during the masterclass.

Lachenmann now appears to have reached a crossroads (not an impasse, one trusts) in his composing, and Concertini (2005) is his most recent work. Given its London premiere in the second half of the London Sinfonietta’s concert, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 20 November, this proved a supremely-confident amalgam of possibilities from the orchestral and chamber pieces of the past two decades – enhanced by a spatial distribution that has groups of wind and percussion placed half-way back in, and to the side of, the auditorium; anticipating, reinforcing and echoing the ensemble on the platform to create a three-dimensional discourse that evolves in space as in time.

Once again, there is a strong sense of classical formal procedure being drawn upon in an expressive tension-and-release that unfolds with a near-perfect symmetry. Alluring in its often full and intricate sonorities, the work was given a commanding performance by the Sinfonietta. If, in Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung), Martyn Brabbins had seemed a little too calculated in his overall approach, the skill with which he brought out those individual facets which make Concertini the likely masterpiece it is (aided by the deft manipulation of sound courtesy of Sound Intermedia) confirmed his identification with this music. If the need to experience Lachenmann live has been at all overstated during the course of these concerts, then the tangible immediacy afforded by seeing as well as hearing his music ‘in the flesh’ was nowhere better conveyed than here.

All those who attended these performances and events will keenly anticipate where Lachenmann goes from here. He has spoken of the desire to write Lieder, further evidence of his conviction that the past is there to be reassessed and re-created for the present. Whatever his next move, his stature was decisively confirmed during this week, his long-perceived inaccessibility ‘transcended’ so that future generations are better able to compose and listen without prejudice.

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