Classical: Nono / Feldman London Sinfonietta Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Wednesday 15 November 1995
Their heroic aspect was heightened by the concert's theme, "Endgames", with its hint of the summatory and the valedictory. Yet in a nice irony, the subtle avoidance of endgames proved precisely the point of their music. Feldman's art of great lengths and silences famously denied the expectations of traditional musical form to go on a journey and end up someplace else. Nono, a 1950s serialist with political connections, found in later life a new adventure in the use of electronics. The result was a radical vision of music where aspects of form, and the sense of purposeful movement, are carefully devolved to the action of sound in space.
His Quando stanno morendo, Diario polacco No 2 neatly proposed the equation in a stark yet lucid scoring for alto flute, cello and four female voices, with an array of speakers around the auditorium controlled from a bank of electronics. Three movements built up on poetic fragments by Pasternak, Blok, Milosz and others concerned another kind of endgame: the hoped for and dreaded apocalypse; the utopia that breeds thorns and skulls though it promised survival.
The spur to composition was the state of Poland in the late 1950s. Yet thanks to the music, the message of political and existential stoicism reached out to a wider audience. At times, notably in the first movement, there was the flavour of Renaissance counterpoint, the music creeping forward with an intensity that was echoed in arcane electronic mutterings around the hall. Against the immobility of the vocal writing, flautist Sebastian Bell maintained a soft current of breathy, pitchless sounds like a cold wind in dark places. The chill factor in the second movement was, if anything, even greater, defined by a text that was both sung and spoken and by the funereal pulsing of C hristopher van Kampen's cello, stage left, played with two bows on either side of the strings.
Though something like guarded optimism surfaced in the work's final pages, it took Feldman's For Samuel Beckett, a UK premiere, to lighten the tone. Its musical surface of repeated phrases in patterns of slow change derived in part from Beckett's own methods and from the abstract designs found in tribal rugs - Feldman himself was a collector. Intricate carpet motifs were projected on rotating cubes and triangles suspended above the orchestra of wind, brass and strings; a soothing influence in music whose serenity is not passive but an aspect of the will. Doing nothing can be painfully hard, like holding a posture. Coming down at the end, as the music slipped into silence, was like stepping off a cloud, quietly salubrious.
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