Beethoven [London premiere]
No.42 (In the Alps) [UK premiere]
Stephen Richardson (bass-baritone)
Barbara Hannigan (soprano) & Alistair Mackie (trumpet)
John Fulljames – Staging
Jon Clark – Lighting
Mich McNicholas – Intertitles
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 17 March, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Music theatre with a difference in this double-bill from the London Sinfonietta. Beethoven’s letters, notably those to the ‘immortal beloved’ during 1813/14, are rich in compositional potential – but Gerald Barry’s “Beethoven” (2007) did little more than to skim the musical and dramatic surface.
The three sizable extracts (two from 6 July and one from 7 July of 1813), interspersed with instrumental interludes, were set literally for bass-baritone and a 14-piece ensemble including piano but no percussion. The vocal writing, abstracted and austere with little inclination towards dynamic variation or expressive nuance, projected easily against an instrumental backdrop that made use of Barry’s familiar rhythmic unison as well as (mostly) subtle allusion to works (not necessarily specific to the period in question) by the eponymous composer – along with the hymn “Adeste fideles” whose deadpan strains fairly dominated the final setting. Stephen Richardson was in commanding voice but, not for the first time with Barry, one was left wondering just what the work was intended to convey. Might he not have obtained a similar outcome through setting his local telephone directory instead?
Fortunately, the second half brought far greater rewards. Resident in the Netherlands for over two decades, Richard Ayres has amassed a notable output – the inscrutability of whose numbering belies its range of approach and diversity of expression. Completed two years ago, “No. 42 (In the Alps)” is a notable instance of his working between genres to create something that is ostensibly sui generis.
The story-line – of a girl stranded after a plane crash on an inaccessible Alpine peak who is raised by wild animals and communicates with them in an onomatopoeic language, whose strains are heard by Bobli the mute trumpet-player in the village far below and who embarks on an ill-fated attempt to reach her – is simplicity itself yet amply sustains the 45-minute whole. Ayres’s distinctive humour is evident in the aspects of carpentry and dancing that instil a tangible though often surreal sense of locale, as does the wearing of Swiss and/or Alpine attire by all involved, while the projections on an overhead screen evoke the often halting continuity to be found in many films from the pre-talkies era. Yet the latter also offers up descriptions of a more existential nature – something brought into clearer focus by the interludes which mark-off the three acts, as well as the postlude, in which the ‘life experience’ of three vastly different life-forms provides a discreet context for the prevailing human activity. As in Ayres’s opera “The Cricket Recovers”, the inane and the profound are freely interspersed so that the humour and seriousness which result are found to be one and the same.
Music such as this makes considerable demands on those taking part, but the virtuosity of Barbara Hannigan in capturing the siren-like demeanour of the girl alone on her pinnacle was affecting in its otherworldly aura, with Alistair Mackie no less assured in his agile and increasingly impulsive trumpet playing. John Fulljames created a vital staging out of the Queen Elizabeth Hall platform area, in which the layout of the diverse ensemble became as much a part of the overall presentation as the element of theatrics within it, while Martyn Brabbins had a sure sense of just when to allow the unpredictable its head. The production was a triumph for the London Sinfonietta and for Ayres, whose standing as one of numerous composers ‘without honour’ in his home country is clearly in the process of change.