The BBC Proms is ongoing until the end of this week, the traditional Last Night at the Proms being on Saturday night. For me it all ended about a week and a half ago, but there are a number of things still to report on.
The Proms on August 19, given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, which was a collaboration between the BBC and IRCAM, featured the music of Jonathan Harvey, a long time associate of IRCAM. It included the first performance of Speakings, a major work of Harvey’s which had been commissioned by the BBC, IRCAM, and Radio France and which was also the final product of a three-year association between Harvey and the orchestra. The concert was in three parts, divided by two intermissions, each one of which consisted of a relatively brief piece for tape or electronics, followed by a larger scale instrumental work. The first contained Harvey’s Tombeau de Messiaen for piano and digital audio tape, followed by Messiaen’s Concert á quatre, the second Harvey’s Mortuos plango, vivos voco for eight channel tape, followed by Speakings for orchestra and live electronics, and the third Varèse’s Poème électronique for magnetic tape and Déserts for fifteen wind instrument, percussion and magnetic tape.
Much of Harvey’s music is influenced by a concern with spirituality, reflecting an interest in Buddhism. Each of the three pieces on this concert also were deeply concerned with the opposition of the mechanical and technological to the simple and human. Speakings refers to Buddhist concepts of purification of speech, and considers speech as a means of human communication closely linked to, although distinct from, music. Its most immediate and noticeable preoccupation, though, is with the acoustical phenomena associated with the act of speaking and the expressive qualities and colors that those phenomena might suggest in and of themselves, without direct reference to any linguistic sense with which those sounds might be connected. The orchestral discourse, as Harvey wrote in his program notes, is “electroacoustically shaped by patterns of speech” through a process of shape vocoding realized with the aid of IRCAM music designers Gilbert Nouno and Arshia Cont. The heart of the work is the longer elaborate and active central section which Harvey intended to suggest “the frenetic chatter of human life in all its expressions of domination, assertion, fear, love, etc.,” preceded by a prelude which is a “descent into human life,” and followed by more serene hymn-like section, featuring single lines close to Gregorian chant projected through the acoustical space of the hall. Speakings is a serious and handsome sounding work, lasting about half an hour, which, despite its involved technical paraphernalia, remains human and humanly expressive.
Mortuous plango, vivos voco, which lasts nine minutes, is based on the sound of the largest bell at Winchester Cathedral (inscribed with the text HORAS AVOLANTES NUMERO, MORTUOUS PLANGO, VIVOS AD PRECES VOCO–I count the fleeting hours, I lament the dead, I call the living to prayer) and of the voice of Harvey’s son Dominic, who was from 1976 to 1980 a chorister at the Cathedral. The dominant sound of the bell, which, according to Harvey, is, “for all its richness of sonority,” a dead sound, counts time, marking the beginning of each section of the work and maintaining an unmoving position in the acoustical space of the work, surrounding the audience, while the boy’s voice, a living element, flies freely around that space. The pitch and harmonic structures of the work are based on the complex overtones of the bell. The sounds of those elements, with their different spectra, were manipulated by the computer and “crossbred” with synthetic simulations of those same sounds, as well as transformed back and forth into one another in various ways; among other things the bell and the boy’s voice suggest an opposition between the mechanized and technological and the human. Tombeau de Messiaen also plays on the opposition of the piano sounds of the tape, manipulated to be tuned to the harmonic series of twelve different pitches to the tempered tuning of a live piano. The dialog of those two elements lead to a climatic cascading over the range of the live instrument. All three of Harvey’s pieces sounded imposingly in the space of the Albert Hall, and were, certainly from an acoustical stand point, impressive and highly effective, as was the Varese.
The first section of the concert included Messiaen’s Concert á quartre, a twenty-six minute long work for piano, flute, oboe, ‘cello, and orchestra, left unfinished at his death and completed by his widow Yvonne Loriod, in consultation with Heinz Holliger and George Benjamin. I’m continually at a loss to understand my reaction to Messiaen’s music; those pieces which seem to me to be absolutely first class, and those which I can’t tolerate, all seem to do just about the same thing in just about the same way. This one, by me, anyway, was a real dog, solemnly self important, completely commonplace, and unbearably tedious. I am reminded of Stravinsky’s writing to a friend after hearing a Mahler Symphony, saying something along the line of that it was like being told with great solemnity for over an hour that two plus two equals four.
The concert ended with works of Varese which were the beginnings of the tradition of music incorporating noise and technology which includes Harvey. By comparison to Harvey’s state of the art technological qualities, the Poème électronique seemed by turns quaintly low-tech and beguiling expressive and entertaining. Déserts, however, despite the possibly less sophisticated level of its electronic technology, and even with a rather too soft-edged quality to its performance, was completely overwhelming and enthralling in its utterly serious, granite-hard monumental quality.
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said founded in 1999, is, all by itself, a political statement, and any of its concerts inevitably have a political aspect. The was immediately in evidence at their concert on August 14 in the increased level of security to get into the building, but it was also manifested in the note that said that the members of the orchestra had requested that their names not be printed in the program. The concert included, along with the Haydn Sinfonia Concertante and the Brahms Fourth Symphony, the Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra. The playing of the orchestra in all of those pieces, as well as in their encore, the Prelude to Meistersinger (Barenboim said that whenever he plays music by Schoenberg he likes to included pieces by both Brahms and Wagner to acknowledge their equally strong joint influence on him), was uniformly fabulous. The performance of the Schoenberg was clean and clear and presented the argument of the work cogently and with passion, although what one might call the big gag of the Finale of the piece, the continual succession of ever faster music, finally ending with a languorous and dead slow section, could have been more pronounced. The early concert of the full orchestra was followed by a late night concert played by members of the orchestra which included Boulez’s Mémoriale (‘…explosante-fixed…’Originel) and Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat. The Boulez, whose history–first as a sort of performance kit in tribute to Stravinsky, then worked and expanded as a piece for solo flute with two horns and six string instruments as a memorial piece for Lawrence Beauregard, the flute player of the Ensemble Intercontemporain–takes almost as much time to relate as it takes to listen to the piece, is seductively fluffy and attractive, and received an equally seductive performance. The Stravinsky was performed in its entirety without staging and with one speaker, Patrice Chéreau, reciting the three roles of Ramuz’s text in the original French. Since Chéreau didn’t nearly do the police in voices, the performance was somewhat tedious theatrically, and the sleekness, if not slickness, of the playing did not serve to make it more interesting.
The next night Boulez conducting an all Janáček concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, containing the Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass (in a reconstruction by Paul Wingfield of the original version), along with the very peculiar Capriccio for piano left hand and wind instruments. Boulez’s interest in Janáček is apparently recent, and a result of his recent performances and recording of From the House of the Dead. Like Barenboim’s performance of L’histoire, Boulez’s performances lacked both a certain kind of earthiness and a certain kind of sparkle, and were a little unsatisfying, however satisfying the music was–at least the Sinfonietta and the Mass. The concert performance by the BBC Symphony and Jiří Bělohlávek on August 21 of Osud, Janáček’s fifth opera, which is wonderfully impressive musically and pretty bizarre as a story, was much more convincing.