Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica [UK premiere of original version]
Canti per tredici
Ha Venido: Canciones para Silvia
Canciones a Guiomar
La fabbrica illuminata
sofferte onde serene
Con Luigi Dallapiccola
A Pierre. Dell’azzurro silenzio, inquietum
Claron McFadden (soprano)
Sarah Nicolls (piano)
Sebastian Bell (contrabass flute)
Andrew Webster (contrabass clarinet)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 27 April, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Aside from a major retrospective at the 1995 Huddersfield Festival, and some (often ill-programmed) performances elsewhere, the music of Luigi Nono (1924-1990) has received scant attention in the UK; yet despite a concert scene seemingly at odds with its aesthetic, it represents an approach to composing that mirrors the aesthetic trajectory of post-war Western music – whether as a broadly cultural or intrinsically aural phenomenon.How gratifying, then, that the London Sinfonietta devoted awhole concert to this diverse, elusive but always absorbing and often powerfully communicative music.
As the writer John Warnaby pointed out some years ago, Nono’s output fits with uncanny ease into the Beethovenian three-period format: first, the music of the 1950s – where the composer absorbs and personalises the thinking of his predecessors and contemporaries; next, the music of the 1960s, in which he engages directly with the social and political concerns of his era; lastly, the music of his final 15 years, which refines and intensifies his thinking in a way that necessitates ‘deep listening’ such as is the sure pre-requisite, and hence a definition, of any music likely to be considered ‘great’.
This concert provided an overview on the main facets of Nono’s 40-year creativity – beginning with his second major work, Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica (1951), heard in the original version that Hermann Scherchen cut by a third out of fear it would over-tax the audience’s concentration. Yet it seems shorter when the formal process is allowed freely to unwind: melody lines (derived from a Brazilian ceremonial song) emerging gradually then, in the central section, taking on greater rhythmic mobility as the work reaches its climax – saxophone and percussion to the fore – before dispersing in a stark postlude. From here to Canti per tredici (1955) is the development of an idiom closer to Schoenberg and Varèse than Nono’s Darmstadt contemporaries: contrasting chromatic scales yielding distinctive yet permeable shapes that inform and regulate the musical flow even at its most dense or abrasive.
A sign of changing priorities within Nono’s thinking is his increasing recourse to texts at the end of the decade. “Ha Venido: Canciones para Silvia” (1960) is a brief ‘treatment’ (from the outset Nono had little interest in text-setting as such) of a poem by Antonio Machado which might well surprise in its sensuous and very Italianate lyricism – Inspired, perhaps, by the recent birth of the composer’s first daughter. A similarly evocative text by the same poet is drawn upon in “Canciones a Guiomar” (1963), where vocal writing of limpid poise is heard against an intricately-constituted ensemble – resulting in some of the most expressive and inwardly affecting music written anywhere during the last half-century.
By contrast, “La fabbrica illuminata” (1964) is polemical engagement with a vengeance: solo vocalist set against a taped backdrop of factory sounds and urban unrest in a monodrama which defines the archetypal conflict between society as comprised of individuals and as unarticulated mass. It was a dichotomy that Nono explored extensively over the following decade – but, by the time of …sofferte onde serene… (1976), his artistic convictions were leading in a radically different direction. Here, the sound and gestures of a piano in real-time counterpoints with its pre-recorded image in a series of echoes and anticipations, which together imply the presence of something unseen, even ‘other’.
And it was this sense of ‘otherness’, as a means for inciting new possibilities – aural, conceptual and, by extension, ideological – that forms the basis of Nono’s late work. Con Luigi Dallapiccola (1979) deploys its six percussionists, each with a contact microphone, in a ritualistic array of transformed and diffused sounds that entrances the senses as surely as it captivates the mind. Working at the Freiburg experimental studio in the 1980s, Nono was able to explore such manifest potential inever-more far-reaching ways: A Pierre. Dell’azzurro silenzio, inquietum (1985) is the most compact example of this thinking – contrabass flute and contrabass clarinet merging to potent and ethereal effect, in music that exemplifies the ‘news ways of travelling’ that Nono pursued in his final decade.
Listening was made the more pleasurable by the excellence of the performances. Claron McFadden evinced as complete an involvement with the vocal rhetoric of ‘Fabrica’ as with the austere radiance of ‘Venido’ – which, as in ‘Guiomar’, featured a contribution of poised intensity from the BBC Singers. Sarah Nicolls repeated her distinguished reading of ‘Sofferte’, and Sebastian Bell and Andrew Webster were fully attuned to the minuscule tonal inflections that give ‘Pierre’ its implosive power: all four of the evening’s latter works being realised with absolute textural clarity and musical fidelity by Sound Intermedia. The remaining items all brought a dedicated response from the London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen shaping the expression to a degree that reminded one just how responsive to interpretation such music can be. A memorable evening on all counts – and if a ‘Nono renaissance’ were to take place in this country, few would deny that it had begun in a near-capacity Queen Elizabeth Hall on this evening.