Time and Again
… amaris et dulcibus aquis …
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sound projection by David Sheppard (Sound Intermedia)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 7 February, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
As a fairly last-minute replacement for a colleague, and not previously knowing much (if any) of Tristan Murail’s music, I arrived at the Barbican Hall with a mix of keen anticipation and, as a writer, slight wariness. Two or so hours later, I left as a Murail convert.
This was the second Murail concert of the day. Otherwise there were related films and talks, the focus being on Tristan Murail who had been chosen for the second leg of “Total Immersion”, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s newly initiated ‘Composer Days’ series. (The first featured Karlheinz Stockhausen and the third this season is devoted to Iannis Xenakis, on 7 March.)
Murail (born in 1947 in Le Havre) seems moved to compose “out of a sharp reaction against the influence of both Boulez and serial music…”. Yet there are some parallels with Boulez (Murail has undertaken sound-analysis studies at IRCAM, very much a Boulez stronghold, and there are aural similarities between the two composers’ music). Essentially Murail is fascinated by acoustics and sound itself and has cited composers such as Ligeti and Xenakis as helping him find his own direction. Murail belongs to the ‘Spectral’ group of composers and is aligned with such as Gérard Grisey, Michel Levinas, Hugues Dufourt (whose music Boulez has conducted) and Roger Tessier.
So, with such tips as Murail’s music being “for the ear” and that his scores are concerned with “composing from the inside of sound”, the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert was a triumph of music and performance under the energetic and punctilious Pascal Rophé.
The chosen pieces were offered in chronological order. Gondwana (1980) is the name given by geologists to a landmass now broken into the land formations of today, and also a vast sunken continent from Indian mythology. In musical terms, over its 17-minute course, Gondwana (scored for a fairly large orchestra, without electronics) shimmers, its iridescence a constant pleasure with it meteorological associations, refraction of sound, and latent power that builds to climactic intensity.
Time and Again (1985) was composed for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle. This is for a similar-size orchestra as Gondwana if with a reduced string section. A Yamaha DX7 synthesiser is also employed. Some sounds from the latter suggest a sci-fi soundtrack (and, indeed, the title alludes to Clifford D. Simak’s novel, rather than H. G. Wells’s). This listener, who refrained from reading the programme notes beforehand, had thought occasionally of “Star Trek” (in its William Shatner days). More angular and active than Gondwana, Time and Again (playing here for 16 minutes) occasionally recalls textures and processes one might associate with the music of Boulez and Dutilleux, and there is a clear reference to Messiaen’s Turangâlila-Symphonie (which Murail has often performed in as the player of the ondes martenot part). If the electronic component sometimes seems to thicken the timbres, Murail’s interweaving of melodic strands is often beguiling.
Less convincing was “… amaris et dulcibus aquis …” (1994-5/2004 … bitter and sweet waters …) for choir and two synthesisers (the latter instruments played by John Alley). Setting parts of the anonymous 12th-century “A Pilgrim’s Guide to St James of Compostela” (wittily described by Murail as “a Michelin Guide of the Middle Ages”), the composer creates bell-like sounds and in-built resonance, a mystic atmosphere, the choir given rapid chanting and ecstatic lines; yet over 16 minutes the effect seemed rather unvaried and, ultimately, too open-ended. Which is not to gainsay the excellent performance by the 26-strong BBC Singers (undaunted by the Latin text) under James Morgan.
The BBCSO and Pascal Rophé returned to end this absorbing concert with Terre d’ombre (Earth of Shadows, 2003-04), the stimulus being Scriabin’s Prometheus (as the very recognisable opening chord immediately suggested). With live electronics creating Surround Sound, and the largest orchestra of the night (including six horns and four each of trumpets and trombones) there was much to stimulate the ear, and to ravish, too, not least in the use of solo strings – Murail certainly knows how to caress the senses (not least when the violins offer a chord that suggests ‘Saturn, the bringer of old age’ from Holst’s The Planets, if no doubt coincidentally).
It would be interesting to hear the 23-minute Terre d’ombre without its electronic component; it is far from intrusive, and often ‘belonging’, yet Murail has a mastery of the orchestra that also demands appreciating on its own terms. Nevertheless, such enhancement (including more bell sonorities) did offer a sense of space, and some sort of time-line is maintained by Murail’s love of late-Romantic music; his “dialogue” with Scriabin’s Prometheus brings its own reference (but I failed to get the Sibelian connection in Gondwana) yet with no expectation on Murail’s part for the listener to be familiar with it.
This was a revealing concert, superbly performed, the composer delighted and warmly received; enough to make it mandatory for me to listen to “Hear and Now” on arriving home, for the concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 just a couple of hours after it had taken place and is no doubt available for seven further days on the BBC’s iPlayer.