Luigi Nono: Prometeo

Prometeo [UK premiere]

Amy Howarth & Juliet Fraser (sopranos)
Emma Brain-Gabbott & Heather Cairncross (mezzo-sopranos)
Andrew Busher (tenor)

Caroline Chaniolleau & Mathias Jung (narrators)

Roberto Fabbriciani (flutes)
Timothy Lines (clarinets)
Roger Harvey (trombone)
David Powell (tuba & euphonium)
Paul Silverthorne (viola)
Timothy Gill (cello)
Enno Senft (double bass)
David Hockings, Tim Palmer & Alex Neal (glasses)

Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts, Freiburg

Michael Acker & Reinhold Braig – sound projection and electronic realisation
André Richard – spatial sound co-ordination & artistic co-ordination

Synergy Vocals
London Sinfonietta
Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble
Diego Masson & Patrick Bailey

Performances on 9 & 10 May 2008; both attended by Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 May, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Luigi Nono (1924-90)There was an air of anticipation about these performances such as one rarely senses at concerts of (relatively speaking) contemporary music, and which stemmed wholly from the music in question. For Luigi Nono’s “Prometeo” has established a near-mythic status since its premiere almost a quarter-century ago, and the fact it has only now made it to the UK should not detract from its having done so; nor from the acclaim occasioned by the only thing which matters – its intrinsic musical content.

The context out of which “Prometeo” arose – from Nono’s final creative decade largely spent working at Freiburg’s Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts, where he was preoccupied with the interaction between acoustic and electronic sound – is fairly well known by now. Coming almost midway through that decade, “Prometeo” represents both a culmination of what Nono had been working towards and a benchmark for where he was headed. By no means his final and certainly not his sole masterpiece of the period, it yet embodies everything that makes his late works relevant to composers, performers and listeners today. As to whether those late works embody a turning away from overtly political or even polemical concerns, Nono’s primary aim – in line with Marx’s famous dictum about philosophers – was always to change rather than to interpret. How better to bring about that change of perspective in individuals than to challenge the way in which they hear? Thus the process of listening becomes of paramount importance to the reception of these works as a whole, and to “Prometeo” in particular.

Described as a “tragedy of listening”, “Prometeo” is a work sui generis. Although Nono utilised a libretto prepared for him by the poet Massimo Cacciari, much of that text remained unused and even sections that were are found inserted into the score for musicians to “think on” as they perform rather than to be performed as such. This means that attempting to ‘follow’ the text as the work unfolds is of little benefit, detrimental even, to any balanced appreciation of the music. Much better to read the text beforehand (a study text was included in the programme, and the most recent recording (Col Legno) includes a “listening score” which is of real help in understanding just how the work comes together in practice) and keep its salient details in mind while the music is in progress.

Playing continuously for just under two-and-a-quarter hours, “Prometeo” consists of nine sections that enshrine – in avowedly abstract terms – the idea of Prometheus: the Titan (i.e. – one between God and Man) whose quest for knowledge parallels that of an evolving humanity. Just as there can be no end to this evolution, so “Prometeo” is not a work that seeks closure: rather it draws on the fullest range of dynamic and textural extremes, superimposed and spatially articulated in infinitely subtle ways, to create an expressive continuity. Nono was never afraid of context in his music, but this is evident not through allusion but rather a cultural grounding that eschews division between past and present.

Putting on “Prometeo” means facilitating the listening process above all else, and these performances were evidently the result of painstaking preparation. A whole day had been spent setting-up the Royal Festival Hall for the elaborate spatial layout that the work requires – placing its multiple vocal and instrumental groups within the widest possible acoustic ‘frame’ so that co-ordination was not risked, while at the same time according the sound projection its full potential. Overseeing all this, as he has done since the work’s inception, was André Richard – whose understanding of what it takes to make late Nono ‘happen’ is unequalled. That he was satisfied on this count also says much for the success of the Royal Festival Hall’s refurbishment, as no comparable work makes the acoustic space so integral to its realisation. Those having heard “Prometeo” elsewhere seemed more than satisfied in this respect.

Although involving a large number of musicians, it would yet be mistaken to access a performance of “Prometeo” in terms of individual or even ensemble virtuosity. A work that places emphasis so much on what is heard as opposed to what is seen entails everyone integrating their part so that a kind of supra-anonymity results: likewise with each member of the audience – their experience of the work is heightened when part of a collective listening process that is too rarely apparent in the concert hall.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong not to acknowledge the contribution of flautist Roberto Fabbriciani – who worked most intensively with Nono during his Freiburg decade, and whose knowledge of performance-technique in this music can only have been of benefit to those taking part. Nor was the contribution of speakers Caroline Chaniolleau and Mathias Jung other than authoritative.

As to the combined forces of the London Sinfonietta and Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, there were few instances when one could differentiate between seasoned and intending professionals, while Synergy Vocals brought out the requisite purity and translucency of the vocal writing. Nor did conductors Diego Masson and Patrick Bailey leave anything to chance: the former living the music as if his life depended on it; the latter assured in his supporting role, and directing his ‘single conductor’ sections with a concentration that did much to heighten intensity over the work’s greater time-span.

Those able to attend both performances may have done so from different seating positions (tickets were priced according to whether one sat in the area – Stalls and Lower Terrace – within the ‘surround sound’ domain) – in which case, the role that spatial transformation plays in the actual ‘sound’ of this work will have been more apparent. Those who departed during the performance were few considering numbers in attendance and the demands of the music, while the ovation on each evening attested to its impact. It seems “Prometeo” made those present at least question their listening habits, and maybe even change them forever.

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