Total Immersion: Peter Eötvös [14 May 2011]

Written by: Richard Whitehouse


Paris-Dakar [UK premiere]


Psalm 151 (in memoriam Frank Zappa)

Sonata per sei [UK premiere]

MarekTomasczewski (clarinet); Guildhall Jazz Band/Jules Buckley

Ian Bufton, Emily Heathcote & Ya-Ching Yu (clarinets)

TaichiImanischi (percussion)

Guildhall New Music Ensemble/David Corkhill




Levitation [UK premiere]

IMA [UK premiere]

Miklós Lukács (cimbalom)

John Bradbury & Richard Hosford (clarinets)

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Peter Eötvös

Barbican Hall, London

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Peter Eötvös. © Jean-Francois Leclercq

The emergence over the past fifteen years of Peter Eötvös as a composer of international significance has been among the more heartening aspects in contemporary music during this period. Still more visible (at least in the UK) as a conductor, his inclusion in the BBC’s Total Immersion series enabled a better understanding of his achievement – with several UK premieres featured in a full but not over-stretched programme of events.

Those who made it along to the Guildhall’s Silk Street Theatre in the morning will surely have benefitted from Judit Kele’s 1998 film portrait “The Seventh Door”, while the afternoon showing of Don Kent’s filming of “Three Sisters” in Théâtre du Châtelet’s 2001 production provided a visual perspective on an opera yet to be staged in the UK. To which end the relatively poor quality of a print apparently dubbed from VHS, and with no English or even French subtitles for this avowedly Japanese production of a temporally complex opera sung in Russian, was excusable in view of the film’s commercial unavailability. Along with Pascal Dusapin, Eötvös is the most important opera composer at work today and any exposure of his output in this sphere is to be welcomed. There was also an early-evening performance of pieces inspired by his music as part of a BBC Learning Project, before which Eötvös appeared in conversation with Alan Williams – who had earlier provided an informative overview of the composer.

Otherwise, the day’s events centred on lunchtime and evening concerts in the Barbican Hall. The former was in itself a decent overview of Eötvös’s ensemble work, opening with the big-band jazz of Paris-Dakar (2000) which evoked the exhilaration but also remoteness of this fabled desert race in incisive and idiomatic terms – Marek Tomasczewski complementing Jules Buckley’s direction of the Guildhall Jazz Band. After which, the ethereal not-quite-repetitions of Derwischtanz (2001) for three clarinettists offered an arresting take on a melodic and harmonic ‘minimalism’ owing little, if anything, to forebears either side of the Atlantic.

An ‘in memoriam’ to Frank Zappa, Psalm 151 (1993) is among Eötvös’ starkest and most hieratic pieces – the solo percussionist moving between ‘verses’ played on bass drum and ‘choruses’ on bells, plates and gongs with unswerving resolve – but the placing of the performance stage-right and TaichiImanischi’s attempted integration of what looked to be gestures derived from martial arts made for an overly affected realisation. No such quibbles concerning Sonata per sei (2006), a reworking of the earlier CAP-KO concerto for two pianos, sampler keyboard and four percussionists. Perhaps the reduction of the orchestra down to just sampler was not ideal, but the intensive spatial interplay was hardly compromised: the first three movements unfolding as a subtle fusion of Bartókian and Balinese gestures which is suddenly made explicit in the fourth, ‘Bartók crosses the ocean’, with its evocative role for ocean drum, before a tensile and increasingly exuberant finale in which the Guildhall New Music Ensemble responded with alacrity to the direction of David Corkhill.

The evening concert brought Peter Eötvös to the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has worked on many occasions (not least his fondly remembered role as Principal Guest Conductor during 1985-88). The programme opened with zeroPoints (1999), first heard in this venue eleven years ago when Pierre Boulez conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. Suffice to say the BBCSO seemed no less inside the idiom of this typically oblique showpiece, a continuous succession of brief but diverse sections in a ‘countdown’ towards the (then) new millennium which are constantly on the brink of, without yet achieving, expressive unity. After such effervescence, Psychokosmos (1993) was an altogether tougher proposition: this whole-scale reworking of one of the composer’s earliest acknowledged pieces, Kosmos (1961), exchanges an odyssey for two pianos centred on the euphoria of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space-flight for a far more ambivalent exploration of timbre and texture for cimbalom and orchestra. The piece unfolds as an expansion around the solo instrument in which the orchestra enters as waves of sound and on towards a climax of shattering emotional power, then an uncannily weightless postlude – Miklós Lukács the unflappable still-centre amid this maelstrom of activity.

After the interval, the forces were reduced to strings and accordion as the accompaniment to two clarinets in Levitation (2007). Inspired by the dexterity of Chinese opera (a potent influence on his music as a whole), the piece is in four sections whose lively outer ones are a veritable play on associations Ravelian, Bartókian and Stravinskian. The central sections, despite featuring some of Eötvös’s most atmospheric instrumental writing, felt insufficiently contrasted and might have been more effective segued into one, but this in no way reflected on the sensitive response from John Bradbury and Richard Hosford in their solo roles. More surprising was the failure of IMA (2002) to round off the concert satisfactorily, though this sequel to one of the composer’s defining works, Atlantis (1994), is likely best heard in combination with it. On this occasion, this treatment of poems by Sándor Weöres and Gerhard Rühmleft an amorphous as well as a distant impression – the modest orchestral forces (with two keyboards) readily yielding sonic images of civilisation after catastrophe, but the distinction between solo and choral voices (the BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus respectively) going for little and the offstage strings all but inaudible. A pity, as this evocative work undoubtedly has much to offer.

An overly low-key conclusion, then, to a day which yet confirmed the vitality of Eötvös’s musical vision and his undemonstrative realisation of it. Hopefully he will be working again in the UK before too long. For now, those interested in exploring his output further should turn to the excellent (and increasingly comprehensive) sequence of compact discs issued on the Budapest Music Centre label, which takes in most of the pieces heard in these concerts – often in performances directed by the composer. Make no mistake, this was a day of worthwhile music in performances that, despite passing reservations, abounded in lively and responsive performances.

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