Lachenmann Plus

Mouvement ( – vor der Erstarrung)
‘…zwei Gefühle…’, Musik mit Leonardo
Hip to Easter Island
Au delà de Movemur II [World premiere]
Antiterra [UK premiere]

Helmut Lachenmann (speaker)

Sound Intermedia

London Sinfonietta
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 April, 2005
Venue: LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

Although discs of his music have proliferated in recent years, performances of works by Helmut Lachenmann remain infrequent on these shores – though Huddersfield did him proud some years ago and Nun received an impressive airing from Jonathan Nott at Edinburgh in 2003, the favourable response to which suggested more than a cursory interest from the general public. An appreciably full house greeted this 70th-birthday commemoration by the London Sinfonietta, in which two of his most distinctive and immediate works were heard in the context of three younger contemporaries.

Those three pieces were in themselves well contrasted. Drawing on a classic early ’70s Blaxploitation track by Parliament, Luke Stoneham’s Hip to Easter Island (2002) juxtaposed lengthy sections for funk ensemble – over which two violins float in ethereal accord – with brief cadenza-like passages for harpsichord. Arresting, though the procedure is not so far removed from Maxwell Davies’s late-’60s re-compositions, and the essential point had been made long before the piece’s 14 minutes were up.

Iancu Dumitrescu is among the best known of the middle generation of contemporary Romanian composers, and his Au delà de Movemur II (2005) seemed fairly typical in its painstaking use of bowing techniques to extract from a string sextet a near-limitless array of timbral nuances which yet fail either to definea compelling inner logic or to pursue a discernible outward trajectory. Without either, the music remained at the level of a static object – alluring to behold but lacking any real expressive purpose.

Most memorable of the three was Stefano Gervasoni’s Antiterra (1999) – taking the idea of a world in reverse from Vladimir Nabokov’s eponymous novel to create music both subtle and inward, yet with an immediacy in the instrumental interplay that engaged the mind as surely as it soothed the senses. Lacking as yet the quizzical humour and abrasive wit of Donatoni, it suggested that, among younger Italian composers, Gervasoni may well emerge as his natural (if there could indeed be one!) successor.

It was Lachenmann’s evening, even so, and the sheer force of his musical personality was amply in evidence. Like his mentor Luigi Nono, Lachenmann has come to define a compositional approach where the intrinsic quality of the sound determines its affective nature rather than the other way around. Provocative but not narrowly political in intention, and with a fastidiousness of timbre and sonority, this is music that retains its immediate impact long after a more considered assessment has begun.

Of the works heard at this concert, Mouvement ( – vor der Erstarrung) (1984) is a veritable ensemble showpiece that may indeed be “angst-ridden” (the composer’s words) in its constant proximity to breaking-point and in its abstracted allusions to the musical past, but whose rhythmic and harmonic follow-through is never less than exhilarating. And the recourse to unorthodox playing-techniques readily accentuates the feeling of a parallel discourse: one that impinges on the listener’s conscience by dint of the absolute naturalness with which it has been absorbed into the composer’s thinking.

Likewise ‘…zwei Gefühle…’, Musik mit Leonardo (1992) – an intense yet intimate meditating on Da Vinci’s speculation on the unknown and unknowable; which likely has more presence when heard as an autonomous piece than as part of Lachenmann’s opera “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern”. On this occasion, the text recited by two ‘wanderer’ narrators was combined into a single part and spoken by the composer himself with a commitment which was no less involving for its emotional reticence. The sense of a steadily unfolding and accumulating psychodrama was palpably and affectingly conveyed.

It remains to add that the performances gave the lie to any charge that the London Sinfonietta is less attuned to the music of European Modernism than the equivalent groups in France and Germany. Currently making his name in the orchestral repertoire, Ilan Volkov directed each piece with a sure feeling for what the music, in each case, is – and for what it sought to achieve. A rewarding evening – such as there will hopefully be more of well before Lachenmann’s 75th-birthday comes into view.

  • Concert broadcast in BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now on Saturday 18 June at 11.00 p.m.
  • London Sinfonietta

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