Substratum … The Age of Anxiety … Ives 4

Substratum [BBC commission: world premiere (incomplete)]
Symphony No.2 (The Age of Anxiety)
Symphony No.4

Orli Shaham (piano)

London Philharmonic Choir

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson
Matthew Rowe (second conductor in Ives 4)

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 17 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Californian-born Principal Guest Conductor David Robertson last year received the ASCAP Morton Gould Award for Innovative Programming for his work with the St Louis SO and his flair for programme building was everywhere apparent in this most stimulating Prom. Ives’s Fourth Symphony, the very paradigm of the American ‘experimental tradition’, was preceded by a moderately rare outing for Leonard Bernstein’s ‘The Age of Anxiety’.

The American theme was continued sub-cutaneously with the premiere of the first of the season’s commissions, Substratum by Sam Hayden (born 1968), who spent some of his musical studies at Columbia University.

In the event, we had only a partial premiere. A slip with the programme informed that:
The BBC Symphony Orchestra regrets that it has proved impossible to prepare the whole of Sam Hayden’s Substratum for this evening’s Prom. In agreement with the composer, we are presenting the final three sections this evening. The BBC SO will present the premiere of the complete work at the earliest opportunity during its winter season.

11 minutes of a work timed at “c23”. Around half of the work was missing, then, and there are surely few pieces of continuous music where this would not be a major obstacle to appreciation. This would seem to be especially the case with Substratum. The sections that we heard came across as a single stretch of densely woven material, a seething cauldron of sound in which the overall trajectory (of the complete work) is stated by Hayden to be a “gradual thinning out”. If this is the case, the first four sections must be calamitous indeed, since the opening gestures of the fifth section threw down a defiantly modernist gauntlet. The music is tumultuous, rebarbative and non-figurative in the best of the ‘new complexity’ manner (Hayden describes his style as “coming from the traditions of post-minimalism and new complexity”).

The governing architectural principle of the work is the interlocking of multiple layers of sound, sometimes in ways that coalesce but also generating huge surface friction, all the while relating to a ‘bass line’ that runs throughout the piece that from time to time seems to go underground and pass out of audibility. The layering of discrete strands immediately suggests the compositional approach of Birtwistle, above all the stratagem of his Earth Dances. Birtwistle’s soundworld does hover somewhere in the background of Substratum but Hayden’s manner is altogether less elemental and more pointillist. Also, unlike Birtwistle, the continuous surface activity of Substratum – or at least the parts we heard – rarely if ever throws up a ‘leading voice’, the total mass was everything. Even the passages toward the end where the texture does thin out, notably the recessed final passage, came across as the same dense weft as if viewed from a distance.

It seems right to reserve judgement on Substratum until the whole work has been presented. For now, my provisional impression is of a work that was perhaps hard to love but I admired Hayden for producing something that meets his stated aim of an art that “exists between categories, resists commodification”. In a time when many composers are doing just the opposite, it was refreshing (if also challenging) to encounter a composer who hears the beat of a different drum.

The performance seemed a minor miracle of precision, with the subtle, almost delicate, part-writing vividly caught and the irregular rhythmic scansion of the work rendered with exemplary clarity.

It took several abrupt shifts of gear to get into the right listening-mood for the ensuing performance of Bernstein’s atypically austere Second Symphony. The work itself is generally regarded as problematic in its relation to W. H. Auden’s ‘baroque eclogue’ that shapes it, and the performance-tradition of the work since Bernstein’s death has evolved toward a general ditching of the subtext and indeed the symphonic tag, in favour of viewing it as a piano concerto, albeit an eccentric one.

That said, I am never convinced by a revisionist approach to Bernstein’s concert music whereby the hyper-emotional, post-Mahlerian Angst favoured by the composer as conductor is downplayed (David Gutman’s composer profile in the programme made the standard case for this). I prefer my Bernstein to drip with every last ounce of passion and emotional intensity; otherwise it can seem that the germinal impulse of the music is gone, leaving a black-and-white photograph of the original. The orchestral contribution in this performance seemed to lack this animating spark and indeed in ‘Part 1’ was on occasions sluggish. I admired Orli Shaham’s taut and probing rendition of the piano part, but the jazz element that suddenly surfaces in the ‘Masque’ of ‘Part 2’ lacked swing and abandon. Nevertheless I was moved by the final peroration and, in the end, this vexed piece seemed to have worked. I was also struck for the first time by how much Bernstein took from Shostakovich for this work.

After the interval, the finest performance of Ives’s visionary masterpiece I have ever heard (all previous encounters being at the Proms!).

The early indications were already promising, the first movement beautifully held together, with the London Philharmonic Choir on radiant form. The ever-astonishing second movement can easily be made to sound a turgid mess. I marvelled at how Robertson (aided and abetted by second conductor Matthew Rowe) was able to separate out every strand of Ives’s collage, even in the densest super-impositions. The quarter-tone string writing had a luminosity I have never quite heard before. It was also good to see Ralph van Raat get a credit for the often-buried but critical piano part – those eerie spread chords that are an Ives trademark.

The third movement was exquisitely realised. It had a natural, unforced quality and seemed to unfold as a single long exhalation.

The synthesis undertaken by Ives in the final movement has always seemed to me to be one of the crowning glories of American music and the seamless blend of its disparate elements was achieved magnificently in this performance. Close proximity to Berio’s Sinfonia from the previous night’s Prom suggested a parallel with the Ives – the expository first movement, the ‘scherzo’ constructed out of borrowed material and the finale created from a fusion of what has gone before.

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