Gérard Grisey – Les espaces acoustiques

Les espaces acoustiques [UK premiere of complete cycle]

Paul Silverthorne (viola)
London Sinfonietta
Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble
George Benjamin

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 October, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Gérard Grisey (1946-1998)It is ironic, though not untypical, that the music of Gérard Grisey has attracted far more attentionin the decade since his untimely death at 52. Along with Tristan Murail, he was the most significant figure behind Spectralism – the most vital movement in French new music after Boulez, and whose emphasis on sound as an acoustic phenomenon made it less a means to expressive ends as an end in itself. From the outset, however, Grisey was not averse to placing such abstraction within a more dynamic, even rhetorical context: thus the large-scale project from the first half of his career, Les espaces acoustiques (1976-85), in which spectralist procedures (though Grisey was most vociferous among his peers in disavowing the term) are pursued over six works that gradually expand not only the forces required but also the complexity of musical texture and the degree of gestural ‘allusion’.

As its gestation might indicate, Les espaces acoustiques came together in stages. Its starting-point was ‘Périodes’ (1974) for seven musicians, whose evolution along a process directly analogous to the ‘inhalation-exhalation-rest’ of human breathing soon expanded onto a larger scale with ‘Partiels’ for 18 musicians (1975) – before extending backwards to first principals with ‘Prologue’ (1976) for solo viola, as well as forwards to ‘Modulations’ (1977) for 33 musicians. The logical outcome of this was ‘Transitoires’ (1981) for 84 musicians, though Grisey was later to add ‘Epilogue’ (1985) for four solo horns and 80 musicians. Although performance of the constituent works (save for the last) is still an option (the first four sections have all been heard here before), the music gains appreciably from being heard as an integral entity – making this hearing of the whole cycle in the UK one to be relished.

A sequence that lasts some 95 minutes cannot – indeed, should not – easily be summarised, but it is worth mentioning that ‘Périodes’ remains a paradigm of what Grisey sought to achieve. The technical processes may be highly involved, but the material is little more than a series of harmonics centred on E: how the material evolves and the ways through which Grisey skews, gently but insistently and even humorously, that evolution over several sub-sections becomes the point of the piece – hence that of the cycle as a whole.

Paul SilverthorneEven in the relationship between this and ‘Partiels’, a level of conceptual and musical irony is evident such as expands into the visual coup de théâtre which opens ‘Modulations’; and which in turn translates into the visceral interplay between timbre and texture of ‘Transitoires’. In its outlining a trajectory from pure melody to white noise, ‘Prologue’ encapsulates all that follows; while the return of solo viola prior to the start of ‘Epilogue’ might seem to bring the overall process full circle, were it not that the role of the four horns disintegrates the harmonic spectrum hitherto conserved, while suggesting intonational possibilities outside the scope even of this cycle as a whole.

A work, then, which places great demands on the musicians – such as were met head-on in this performance: a successful follow-up to that of Nono’s “Prometeo” in its collaboration between the London Sinfonietta and the Manson Ensemble from the Royal Academy of Music. Paul Silverthorne dispatched his part with undemonstrative flair, while numerous solo contributions (not least Enno Senft, whose double bass graphically motivates the ensemble at key points) were no less expertly taken. George Benjamin took a swifter overall approach than either of the complete recordings, while ensuring clarity of texture was aligned to an emphasis on incident and gesture whenever necessary.

A standing ovation suggested that those attending had grasped the significance of this music, and perhaps of the composer himself. Indeed, Grisey’s significance was to go beyond the achievement of Les espaces acoustiques so that his later work makes expressive contrast and rhythmic momentum as important as timbral differentiation – climaxing in the frangible intensity of the song-cycle “Quatre Chants pour franchir le Seuil” (1998). Those so far impressed should take the opportunity to hear his likely masterpiece when given as part of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s “Music of Today” series on 30 November at 6 p.m. in the Royal Festival Hall (free admission).

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