The French Spectralists – 5 December

Anubis et nout
Plus loin
Le partage des eaux

Martin Robertson (saxophone)

Sound Intermedia (David Sheppard & Ian Dearden)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Pierre-André Valade

Reviewed by: David Murphy

Reviewed: 5 December, 2002
Venue: BBC Studio One, Maida Vale, London

Spectral Music is seldom programmed this side of the English channel; therefore, this concert was not to be missed. It featured two of Spectral’s most important figures, Tristan Murail and the late Gérard Grisey, as well as the lesser-known Philippe Leroux and Philippe Hurel.

Spectral Music materialised in the 1970s, is almost entirely centred in France, and evolved from such composers as Ligeti, Xenakis and Donatoni, whose influences are clearly heard in much of the music performed here. The essence of Spectral Music, much like that of Scelsi, lies in the listener’s perception of musical time. This soundworld can be created through the exploitation of the harmonic series, metamorphic processes creating tension and relaxation, and transmutations of musical themes. These idiosyncratic processes create a genre of music that is unique.

To open the concert, Martin Robertson presented a solo work for bass saxophone by Grisey, its inspiration coming from Egyptian mythology, the legend of the gods Anubis and Nout from the “Book of Dead”. Anubis, the god of night, is symbolised by a descending harmonic spectrum, unusually starting with the fundamental of the series at the top. Nout, the goddess of the sky, complements Anubis by following the harmonic spectrum and typically extending upwards.

This is a virtuoso piece, which Robertson demonstrated in a predictably remarkable performance. This element is achieved by recognising and projecting the multi-layered facets of the music – in some ways the work is like an ensemble piece for solo performer. The use of low-pitched saxophones has a tendency to sound amusing and, at times, this piece was no exception: demonic musical laughter and flourishes of bebop-esque lines, through vocalisations and multiphonics, added to this very entertaining piece. In contrast, the poignant second part could be a lament for the dead – the first version of Anubis et Nout (Anubis-Nout) was written for contra-bass clarinet and dedicated to Grisey’s friend, composer Claude Vivier, who was murdered in 1983. Robertson successfully portrayed the mournful characteristics of this section.

Le partage des eaux for orchestra and electronics typifies the music of Murail. Based around the sound-analysis of a wave breaking against the shore (Murail used a computer programme made at IRCAM), the results of this analysis are assembled and transformed into techniques and harmonies that are used throughout the piece. Typically, the harmonic and structural processes, including rhythm and tempo, are slowed down so the listener can hear the minute partials of the harmonic series. The frequently heard elements in this and other works tonight include huge unison pedal climaxes preceded by swirling arpeggios that seem to be evolved from the harmonic spectrum. The overall impression is of waves of orchestral movement. Murail seemed very pleased with the performance, which is intended for a future CD release.

In Plus loin, Leroux achieves a virtuoso orchestral sound in which his former studies with Xenakis are evident. He maintained typical Spectral “tooing and froing” orchestral movement with plenty, if not excessive, use of intriguing orchestral sounds – which would not sound out of place in an avant-garde version of Tom and Jerry! Unfortunately, Plus loin lacks a little cohesion in its design, partly owing to the surplus of orchestral colour. However, the players seemed more contented here than in the Murail, perhaps due to the challenging and alluring instrumental writing, which helped communicate an expressive overview.

Hurel’s richly coloured, direct and forward-looking work was the most immediately effective of the orchestral works featured. As the title suggests, Flash-back uses repetitions and structured layers; it was also relentless. These flashbacks are important in creating the piece’s form and structure and are taken not only from this piece but also from Hurel’s earlier compositions.

The BBCSO performed effectively and idiomatically with Valade’s cool and relaxed conducting reflected in confident interpretations of these complex scores to affirm his position as one of the most experienced conductors of this repertoire.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in Hear and Now on 18 January

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