La voix humaine – lyric drama to a text by Jean Cocteau [sung in an English translation]
48 Responses to Polymorphia [UK premiere]
Aphex Twin
Nannou [arr. Nunn]

Ilona Domnich (soprano)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Keith Lockhart

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 October, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Keith Lockhart. Photograph: Christian Steiner“Disturbia” it may have been called, but there was little disturbing as such in what had been designed as an alternative Halloween concert. Devoting the first half to a relatively rare revival of Poulenc’s La voix humaine (1958) might have seemed odd in context, yet this monodrama remains disturbing on the level of psychological disintegration: the protagonist pursuing a dialogue with her ex-lover – unheard and unseen – that narrows into a reproachful soliloquy before its final fragmentation and her ultimate demise. Fulfilling the requirements of a singing-actress with some aplomb, Ilona Domnich was eminently sympathetic in her desperation and self-denial – her heavily accented though always intelligible English (to an accurate if overly straitlaced translation) providing continuity against a diverse and often graphically evocative orchestral backdrop. Keith Lockhart secured idiomatic playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra which, lacking a little in expressive tension during the work’s central stages, left no doubt as to its closing poignancy. Memory recalls the protagonist being directed to strangle herself with the telephone cord: here, though, her collapse from an excessive ingestion of medication proved far more subtle and convincing.

Horror was presumably meant to transmute into terror after the interval – Penderecki’s Polymorphia (1961) being an instance of the ‘sonorist’ approach with he first came to prominence and which has enjoyed revival in an era when sound need not be overly allied to sense. Certainly those ‘multiple shapes’ which make up its content emerged with exemplary clarity in this performance, though the lack of any essential direction (goal-directed or otherwise) was notable long before its 10 minutes were up, while the final C major chord could hardly be thought a provocation now that misappropriation of tonality is far more evident than its absence.

One of the present-day composers most inspired by Penderecki’s example is Jonny Greenwood, whose role as Composer-in-Association with the BBC Concert Orchestra continued here with the UK premiere of his 48 Responses to Polymorphia (2011). Employing the earlier work’s final chord together with a Bach-like chorale of his own devising, Greenwood has fashioned an atmospheric score that, if it outstayed its welcome, did so not so much through a lack of content as of continuity whence the recourse to lengthy silences seemed less an opening-out of the music’s expressive range than of gaps in its evolution – diversity thereby blurring into discursiveness.

The main ‘analogue’ portion of the concert ended with Nannou (1996), a surprisingly elegant and atmospheric piece by electronica’s perennial enfant terrible Aphex Twin (aka Richard James) – here given in a resourceful arrangement by Patrick Nunn where the musical-box premise of the original is made to yield an expression even more wistful and affecting. In the process, the music’s proximity to the Tierkreis miniatures by Aphex Twin’s oft-cited mentor Stockhausen was the more apparent. The performance left nothing to chance, though quite what is ‘disturbing’ about either the piece itself or the present arrangement was difficult to determine.

The BBCCO then headed off the platform, leaving an empty space as setting for Visage (1961) – probably the most perfectly achieved and certainly the most alluring of the tape-works that Berio created in his early maturity – not least with its focal-point being the inimitable ‘presence’ of Cathy Berberian, heard in a dizzying array of guises which manages to keep the purely electronic source at bay until its graphic submerging during the final minutes. Eye-masks were provided for the audience to submerge collectively in the musical process, but many preferred to use it as a background against which to check messages and send texts. Disturbing indeed!

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