Popcorn Superhet Receiver … Apollo … The Mask of Orpheus

Popcorn Superhet Receiver
The Mask of Orpheus – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Peter Zinovieff with tape interludes by Barry Anderson: Act II – The Arches

Orpheus (the man) – Alan Oke
Orpheus (the myth) – Thomas Walker
Euridice (the woman) – Christine Rice
Euridice (the myth) / Persephone – Anna Stéphany
Hecate – Claron McFadden
Charon / Caller / Hades – Andrew Slater
Fury 1 / Woman 1 – Rachel Nicholls
Fury 2 / Woman 2 – Anna Dennis
Fury 3 / Woman 3 – Louise Poole
First Judge – Christopher Gillett
Second Judge – Håkan Vramsmo
Third Judge – Tim Mirfin

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins
Ryan Wigglesworth [Second conductor: The Mask of Orpheus]

Ian Dearden – sound projection

Tim Hopkins – director

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 14 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Harrison BirtwistleThe world, or at least that part of it that prizes Western art music, has rightly celebrated the 75th-birthday this year of Sir Harrison Birtwistle. This season’s BBC Proms has already given us incisive and authoritative performances by the London Sinfonietta of three early masterpieces. This BBC Symphony Orchestra evening granted us a rare sighting of Birtwistle’s magnum opus to date, the opera “The Mask of Orpheus”, in the form of its extraordinary central Act.

The work occupied Birtwistle for much of the early 1970s during which Act One and most of Act 2 was composed. It then lay dormant, like a slumbering beast, until English National Opera offered the commission and Birtwistle completed the score between 1981 and 1983. Not quite a “Siegfried”-length interregnum, but a sufficiently long gap to see a major advance in the field of electronic music (particularly in relation to the use of computers) and the creation of Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris, who Birtwistle approached for assistance when the opera’s librettist, Peter Zinovieff, decided not to realise the work’s all-important electronic component.

Under the auspices of IRCAM, Birtwistle collaborated with the composer Barry Anderson to produce the background drones referred to as ‘Auras’, six mime interludes described as Passing Clouds and Allegorical Flowers and the terrifying voice of Apollo, who issues commands throughout the work in an imaginary Orphic language as if from the heavens. (The authorship of the electronic music became a vexed intellectual property issue following the triumphant 1986 premiere. The Proms programme pointedly credited the “tape interludes” – one of which appears at the end of the second Act – to Anderson.)

The opera’s formal structure, both in terms of Zinovieff’s astonishingly elaborate text and Birtwistle’s no-less-complex musical response to it, is more or less impossible to convey outside of a reading or a hearing of the work. I hope I do no injustice to the second Act in describing it as a dream in which Orpheus makes an imaginary journey into the underworld to rescue Euridice, articulated through Orpheus (the man)’s ‘Second Song of Magic’ describing the seventeen Arches encountered in the journey, which function as a metaphor for the irreversibility of time. The principal characters are each represented by three actors signifying the person, the hero and the myth, of which the two vocal characterisations were present in this concert performance (the third is a mime).

Martyn Brabbins. Photograph: Sasha GusovThe Proms performance of Act Two opened with the end of Act One (as the composer had wished), its minatory wind chorale underpinning Orpheus (the man)’s spoken recollection of the 17 Arches. In something of a coup de théâtre, a microphone-wielding Alan Oke emerged slowly out of the Arena and made his way to the back of the stage. This established the convention of sleepwalking-like movement on, off and around the stage that was one of the defining characteristics of Tim Hopkins’s direction. Another was the use of hand-held mirrors by all of the performers, orchestra included, spot-lit to create reflections around the auditorium – a reference to the ‘Golden Carriage of Mirrors’ which the libretto postulates as the means by which Orpheus (the man) travels through the underworld (in ENO’s premiere this device was scrapped when it was calculated it would double the cost of the production). Elsewhere a modicum of stage business elevated the presentation above a bare concert performance, most effectively at the end when Orpheus (the man) interacts directly with the orchestra and the two conductors, just before his first death by hanging, although the latter was not enacted.

The previous performances I have encountered – namely the ENO first run in 1986, the BBCSO concert performance in 1996 from which NMC’s recording was drawn and a concert performance of Act Two at the Barbican Centre in one of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s January single-composer festivals (pretty much the entire performance history of the work to date) – have emphasised the visceral, elemental nature of the opera. I recall this most vividly from the Barbican Hall performance. One reviewer, describing its overwhelming impact on the audience, cited the case of the man sitting in front of him who appeared to be having a panic attack near the end – reader, I was that man. Whilst this Proms performance certainly didn’t stint on the apocalyptic when required, the abiding impression I took away this time was how delicate and beautiful much of the writing is – the fine filigree of the harps, the clockwork ticking of percussion, the desolate keening of high woodwind.

The performance was everything one could have hoped for – and more. The electronic element was seamlessly blended into the vocal and instrumental fabric under the seasoned hand of Ian Dearden. The interlude near the end (the second Allegorical Flower), shorn of its attendant mime, functioned most movingly as a purely electronic coda with the musicians cast into a reverie.

All of the individual parts were taken exceptionally well; not least Christine Rice’s commanding Euridice (the woman) and Claron McFadden’s startling Hecate. But vocally the evening belonged to Alan Oke, his plangent high tenor at the service of a truly heroic performance. I hope that one day we will see him deliver this in a staged performance. A nucleus of the BBC Singers beavered away tirelessly throughout, providing the continuous backdrop of vocal commentary the score prescribes.

Ryan Wigglesworth. Photograph: alliedartists.co.ukThe collective wind, brass and percussion, and sundries, of the BBC Symphony Orchestra had evidently been rehearsed to a tee and played magnificently. Presiding over everything with unflappable authority was Martyn Brabbins, graduating from second conductor duties on the NMC recording (which is under Sir Andrew Davis). The second conductor this time was the suddenly ubiquitous Ryan Wigglesworth.

Ahead of the performance I had intended to include in this review a lament that the whole opera was not being performed. In the light of the concert itself, I shall apply the principles of positive thinking and say that it would have deprived us of an exquisite first half.

It had seemed perverse to include Stravinsky’s very different take on the Orpheus myth in the following evening’s Prom and not this one. However, on discovering that Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver is written for string orchestra, a first-half pairing with Stravinsky’s Apollo, also for strings, made perfect artistic and logistical sense, given these instruments’ absence from the Birtwistle.

Apollo was the first major score in which Stravinsky sought and found a lyricism free of folk music. Not having heard this piece for several years, I was utterly mesmerised by the limpid purity of the music and amazed afresh at the power of influence the strangely affecting harmonic language of this apparently slender work has had over later composers – as different as Britten and Adams. This impression was buoyed by the performance which, while it may not have been the last word in ensemble and intonation, displayed a remarkable tonal refinement and scrupulously observed the dynamic shadings which replace instrumental contrast in this piece. In both this and the Greenwood the violinists and violists stood throughout, to what end I do not know.

Better known as a member of Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood wrote Popcorn Superhet Receiver in 2005 for the BBC Concert Orchestra when he was its Associate Composer. The work was subsequently revised and some of it found its way into Greenwood’s superb score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “There Will Be Blood”. The title refers to a superheterodyne radio or television receiver that can change the frequency of the signal. This is reflected in the music, which, apart from a pizzicato passage toward the end of the work, largely replaces rhythmic propulsion with an alternation between ‘white noise’ and unison single notes or static chords. The chord of piled-up thirds and the ensuing incantation that begins the piece recurs at the halfway point and again at the end.

This material is sufficiently strong that its reappearance is recognisable and its double repetition warranted. The ABACA structure thus created yields a ‘B’ episode that builds toward a peak which suggested heavy breathing, and the ‘C’ part being the pizzicato passage, in which the string-orchestra turned into an electric guitar. This latter passage threw out a tune that was fascinatingly hard to pin down and reminded, not inappropriately, of a lyric by the venerable Captain Beefheart – “music that would bug most people, music from the other side of the fence.”

There were some fairly audible stylistic influences, including Messiaen in the added-sixth harmonies of the refrain (not surprising, as Greenwood is a retro-pioneer of the Ondes martenot) and Penderecki, as well as the Ligeti of Ramifications. But the work stakes out its own distinctive soundworld and has staying power. As talented rock and pop musicians increasingly listen to contemporary classical music and vice versa, you do not have to be Alex Ross to see that this is going to be the way of the future. Sadly, Radiohead’s legion of fans did not supplement the usual Proms audience demographic and this marvellous concert played to a decent but nowhere near capacity audience.

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