London Sinfonietta – Louis Andriessen’s Anaïs Nin & De Staat

Anaïs Nin [UK premiere]
De Staat

Cristina Zavalloni (soprano)

Synergy Vocals

Sound Intermedia

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 April, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

David Atherton. Photograph: Hong Kong PhilharmonicCurator of one of the first Meltdown festivals and with at least one major retrospective of his music, Louis Andriessen has featured prominently at the Southbank Centre over recent years. This concert by London Sinfonietta continued that coverage by juxtaposing one recent major work with one acknowledged classic.

Andriessen has produced a notable series of dramatic pieces – whether full-scale operas or works focussed on a specific performer. “Anaïs Nin” (2010) belongs to the latter category – being a monodrama built around the vocal ‘presence’ of Italian singer Cristina Zavalloni. Nin remains best known for her candid autobiographical writings – notably those dealing with the sexual relationship with her father Joaquín Nin – and extracts from these, together with selections from her exchanges with the dramatist Antonin Artaud, the psychologist René Allendy and author Henry Miller are intermingled in a portrait of a woman by turns ecstatic and despairing.

What might have been an absorbing study in varying degrees of obsession, however, proved to be largely a disappointment. This was in part owing to the nature of Zavalloni’s voice – its blanched, largely vibrato-less tone resistant to expressive subtleties there to be teased out of the Nin persona. The ensemble writing hardly helped: evoking, in its emphasis on reeds and percussion, the jazz combos of the inter-war period, its musical content seemed more a rehashing of routines found in such as Milhaud and Weill, while its rhythmic stolidity further undermined any emotional variety. Nor did the visuals on a screen mainly reserved for projections of text, or the chaise longue setting for the protagonist, enhance a musical drama which, for all its glimpses of a characterisation more arresting or provocative, remained earthbound through most of its duration. A pity, as Nin is a subject ideal for dramatic realisation – if done with a sensitivity and insight largely absent in this instance.

Perhaps this failing says more about the nature of Andriessen’s thinking as he has continued to move away from the unequivocal ‘industrial’ minimalism of his early maturity. An idiom that is embodied at its most visceral in “De Staat” (1976): a setting – albeit in the most impersonal and objectified terms – of extracts from Plato’s “The Republic” that deal with the danger to society of certain musical intervals, modes and instruments; in which the quartet of female voices is placed behind a symmetrically arrayed ensemble dominated by brass and woodwind, and in which pianos and electric guitars are accorded special prominence. Over much of its time the piece unfolds as the continual interchange – through a variety of hocketing and other related canonic techniques – between these antiphonal groups, before a culminating passage in which polyrhythmic interplay brings about a climactic rhythmic and melodic unison: an epiphany that powerfully caps the work as a whole.

Realising this work has never been easy (a first UK attempt famously broke down in mid-course) but, with the Sinfonietta evincing an intense focus, the present account made the most of this unsparing masterpiece. David Atherton (who had also coached the conductor-less ensemble prior to the interval) presided over a gripping rendering, in which the members of Synergy Vocals were not lacking presence and the overall sound balance – even in the densest instrumental passages – remained a model of clarity and perspective thanks to Sound Intermedia. Whether or not it is now provocative in the way intended, the piece still packs a formidable punch.

The performance received a deserved ovation and should be worth hearing again, as the first release of a new association between London Sinfonietta and Signum Classics. Perhaps “Anaïs Nin” will gain from being heard as an audio-only concept? In any event, this concert’s coupling could hardly be faulted for the questions it raised.

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