Dance for Burgess
Étude pour Espace [ed. Chou Wen-Chung – UK premiere]
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
Michael Cox (flute)
Jonathan Golove & Natasha Fry (cello Theremins)
EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble
Un grand sommeil noir
Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
John Constable (piano)
Tuning Up [ed. Chou Wen-Chung]
Nocturnal [ed. Chou Wen-Chung]
Amériques [UK premiere of original version]
Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Friday 16 April 2010
Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Sunday 18 April 2010
Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall & Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 18 April, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall & Royal Festival Hall
Among the (not so) select handful of composers whose surviving output takes up only a few hours, Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) is the most ideally suited for a ‘total immersion’ retrospective such as Varèse 360°. Notions of what constitutes his ‘complete’ works have altered over recent years: the present weekend, following similar events in Amsterdam and Paris, omitted the couple of surviving student pieces and La procession de Verges, the electronic interlude realised in 1955 for Thomas Bouchard’s documentary about Joan Míró and which the film-maker’s estate seems still unwilling to release. Nevertheless, the most significant piece known to exist has now been reclaimed and proves vital to the understanding a composer whose music can have the appearance of a solid object above sea level – with the much greater extent of ‘what lies beneath’ remaining a matter for speculation.
Given as part of the South Bank’s annual Ether festival, Varèse 360° featured a number of ‘related’ events along with a panel discussion on the composer and his legacy. The programme book contained a detailed introduction and annotations on the first two concerts by Malcolm MacDonald – whose book “Varèse: Astronomer in Sound” is the most comprehensive study available in English – though relatively facile notes on the final concert by the National Youth Orchestra’s head of marketing James Murphy. Texts and translations of vocal works were included, though not the original French texts or authors of “Offrandes”, while the title and first line of “Un grand sommeil noir” were evidently lost in translation.
Perhaps this was considered of lesser importance given that the Queen Elizabeth and Royal Festival halls were darkened throughout, thereby focussing attention on the video images being projected. Those by Gary Hill for Amsterdam and Paris being apparently too interventionist, video-artist Cathy Boyd had been commissioned to provide more discreet visuals for the London performances. In the instrumental works, these resembled outtakes from a photography competition in their determinedly low-key manner and while those for the electronic component attempted a more dynamic integration, the fixed nature of the screens coupled with the lack of a true ‘wrap-round’ in the QEH rendered their presence largely ineffectual. Greater recourse was made in the RFH to lighting, the performance of Arcana suffused with a reddish glow that might have made more impact had there been a greater range of intensity; the result was not dissimilar to the tinting of the Royal Albert Hall organ during the Proms, while the occasional waft of carbon dioxide elsewhere was a disappointingly cheap gesture.
Fortunately, none of this detracted overmuch from the quality of the performances. Those in the London Sinfonietta concerts saw the ensemble reunited with its founding conductor David Atherton, whose performances of Varèse (in unlikely yet appealing combination with music by Ravel) are well remembered a quarter-century on. Admittedly the account of Ionisation (1931) felt a little heavy-handed – not least compared to the rapier-like assault of that closing Mark Kidel’s excellent Varèse documentary, re-screened over the weekend – or was it more that the percussionists looked rather cramped when standing in a line to the rear of the QEH platform. Michael Cox gave a tensile rendering of Densité 21.5 (1936) – one of Varèse’s most prestigious commissions, for all that this soliloquy is a true ‘cry from the wilderness’ – while the unruly rhythms of Dance for Burgess (1949) would make an excellent curtain-raiser if more conductors knew of its existence. Granted the occasional hearing nowadays, “Ecuatorial” (1934) continues to intrigue and provoke: its setting of a text derived from the Mayan “Popul Vuh” is arguably be better suited to a bass chorus than solo bass as the composer initially conceived it, but the sheer resonance of John Tomlinson banished almost all doubts while the electric atmosphere generated by an ensemble with brass and organ to the fore was the greater now that cello theremins have re-emerged to replace the ill-suited ondes Martenot more usually employed.
The second half opened with the UK premiere of “Étude pour Espace” (1947). The only tangible result of an evening-length project on which Varèse laboured in the 1930s and 1940s, its one performance in his lifetime was a failure and the piece remained in limbo until Varèse’s amanuensis Chou Wen-Chung was moved to prepare it for last year’s performances – orchestrating and ‘spatializing’ the two-piano parts for woodwind and brass that take their place alongside the vocal ensemble (here the excellent EXAUDI) and percussion. Its text a quirky montage that draws on Kenneth Patchen, Vicente Huidebro and the composer’s own ‘syllables of intensity’, the piece is audibly part of a continuum that takes in “Ecuatorial” and “Nocturnal” – combining the former’s hieratic majesty with the latter’s austere intimacy. It feels provisional only compared with Varèse’s next major project. Alternating ensemble passages and tape interpolations, Déserts (1954) is tragic inasmuch as it makes the disparity between vision and realisation the more acute. Atherton’s powerful conception, enhanced by electronics uncannily ‘present’ in its latest re-mastering, was as affecting as this gaunt masterpiece can have received.
Sunday’s afternoon concert again featured the London Sinfonietta in a programme that focussed on the ensemble works of the 1920s. An unlikely overture, the seething dynamism of Hyperprism (1923) is a statement of intent the more formidable for its sheer compression, while the three continuous movements of Octandre (1924) confirm Varèse’s combative but never dismissive attitude towards his musical past – elements of an undeniably French post-Impressionism freely rubbing shoulders with academic ‘take offs’ of a delicious irony. Aspects of both are brought together in Intégrales (1925), the distillation of all that had been achieved in the decade since his arrival in the US and a template for the combining of woodwind, brass and percussion with seismic consequences for what followed.
Lithe and energetic performances by the Sinfonietta were interspersed by three diverse yet no less characteristic pieces. Elizabeth Atherton was alluring in the darkly sensuous Paul Verlaine setting of “Un grand sommeil noir” (1906) – destined to be the only surviving instance of what was written during 1903-15 and a tantalizing glimpse of what was lost through carelessness in transit, warehouse fires or, quite possibly, Varèse’s own rashness towards his musical past. That he was a born song composer is evident in “Offrandes” (1921), settings of Huidebro’s “Chanson de là-haut” and Juan José’s Tablada’s “La Croix du Sud” whose frequently menacing imagery is heightened by the mesmeric acuity of his response. A pity, perhaps, that Le Courbusier’s still-controversial filmed backdrop for Poème électronique (1958) was not resurrected (as in Amsterdam and Paris), for all that the 480 seconds of Varèse’s bleakly humorous tape fantasy sounded the more startling in its recent refurbishment.
The requirements of Varèse works for full orchestra were well suited to the resources of the National Youth Orchestra in the final concert. What is now known as Tuning Up (1947) is Chou’s amalgamation of two separate studies for an abortive film project; resulting in a lively hors d’oeuvre replete with allusions to earlier works but not therefore authentic Varèse, which did not prevent the NYO milking it for all it was worth theatrically as well as musically – and not least in those dubious siren entries. More disappointing was the failure of Arcana (1927) to catch fire as it should – for which a degree of textural confusion and lack of unanimity from the massed strings, allied to attentive yet generalised direction from Paul Daniel, were largely responsible. In its fusion of alchemy and astronomy this is music rarely, if ever, equalled for epic grandeur and uninhibited violence – qualities not in abundant supply here. After the interval, the inclusion of “Nocturnal” (1965) was presumably to juxtapose the last and first of Varèse’s major works, though this valedictory setting – of Anaïs Nin interspersed with the composer’s abstract syllables, and realized by Chou from several differing drafts – exudes a stark introspection hardly transferable to larger forces. Elizabeth Watts (attired to represent Nin herself?) tackled the refractory vocal writing with determination, as did the basses of Laudibus, their bleak incantations, but it was impossible not to feel this piece was being heard wholly out of context.
Happily, the performance of Amériques (1921) brought the weekend to a fitting conclusion. Not that the NYO (or at least earlier line-ups) is unfamiliar with this piece, having given a memorable account with Daniel at the Proms some years back, but this first UK outing for the even more outsize original version necessitated a pulling-out of all stops that the orchestra met with relish. With its Mahlerian offstage brass contribution and complex writing for what here numbered 19 percussionists, this is the music of a still young composer ready to take the New World by storm and Daniel’s superbly marshalled account brooked no compromise. Hardly his or the orchestra’s fault if the performance confirmed the revision’s superiority as a musical entity – the substituted passage just over halfway through, shot-through with fascinating allusions to a whole range of formative influences, crucially undermines the ongoing momentum just when it needs to intensify – but the climactic unleashing of energy over an implacable ‘walking bass’ is arguably even more spellbinding this first time around. Such was the impression left by a performance that inevitably, and rightly, brought the house down.
Throughout the weekend, attendance was to capacity – clearly Varèse is comparable to Stockhausen in his appeal to a younger and by no means classically-orientated audience. Whether his influence will filter through into the music of an imminent generation of composers remains to be seen, but if it at least enables them to find a way through the post-everything impasse in which Western music has tended to find itself this past decade, events such as Varèse 360° will have been justified beyond even a timely re-hearing of some singular music. Daniel and the NYO signed-off with an unexpected yet apposite encore: Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune seemingly galvanised the teenage Varèse towards a career as a composer and here received a performance whose simmering intensity and otherworldly expression were surely as irresistible to those listening a century and more later.