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S & H Concert Review

Debussy, Berio, Stravinsky François Le Roux (baritone); Christian Lindberg (trombone); London Voices; Philharmonia Orchestra/Pierre-André Valade, RFH, Tuesday, April 20th (CC)


Part of ‘Omaggio: A Celebration of Luciano Berio’ (which runs from April 15th-30th), this concert presented the UK premiere of Berio’s Stanze. Any Berio première is an occasion, but this one was lent added poignancy by the sense of loss at this great composer’s demise in May last year after a long illness.

Stanze was preceded by the ‘Prelude to the Council of the False Gods’ from Debussy’s Le martyre de St Sébastien. Comprising clear, crisp brass fanfares it functioned in effect like one of Stockhausen’s ‘Greetings’ to his operas, a brief (three-minute) welcome before we arrived at the meat. Stanze is Berio’s last composition and sets poems by Paul Celan, Giorgio Caproni, Edoardo Sanguineti, Alfred Brendel and Dan Pagis all of which are linked by a preoccupation with ‘an unmentionable other and other place’ (Berio). This is no deliberation on a Christian God, rather a spiritual meditation by a non-believer; or God as concept. A fascinating take on a subject that more often than not inspires fervent response.

Stanze (‘Rooms’, or ‘Panels’) is scored for baritone, three antiphonally deployed male choruses and orchestra (with inverted seating of strings, so violins are on the left and cellos on the right). Berio spent a long time considering the layout of the work - indeed, hearing it ‘live’ like this was most effective and reduction to ‘stereo’ will surely demean its strength. The work is structured in five ‘panels’, the text delivered, always clearly and intelligibly, by the baritone soloist (François Le Roux’).

The first poem, ‘Tenebrae’ is by Paul Celan and is in German. It opens under cloudy, mysterious harmonies, the ensuing vocal line fairly disjunct but, as always with this composer, underpinned by a firmly lyrical basis. The text contains an interesting inversion in which the Lord is entreated to pray to Mankind, His own creation - yet Berio saves his most beautiful scoring (high woodwind with percussion highlights) for the line Es war Blut, es war,/was du vergossen, Herr’; ‘It was blood, it was,/ that you shed, Lord’. Only Le Roux’ lowest register (right at the close of the setting) gave any cause for concern - how far would it carry if it sounded weak relatively close up, in the lower part of the stalls?

The second movement is a setting of an Italian text by Giorgio Camproni (‘The Ceremonious Traveller’s Farewell’) - it is here the choruses enter. Long vocal lines are set against woodwind arabesques (again, Le Roux’ projection gave cause for concern at one point). The correlation of journey (life) and journey’s end (death) is clear.

The central panel (on a text by Sanguineti - a ‘free manipulation of fragments from Job’, in the words of the poet) is unpredictable in its unfolding, anguished in its scoring, disturbing in its effect. In fine contrast stands the biting humour of Alfred Brendel’s (English) text with its references to the ‘Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka’, a poem that elicited a Sprechgesang response from Berio. The final movement, ‘The Battle’ (sung in German - ‘Die Schlacht’ by Dan Pagis) actually begins like we are suddenly in the aftermath of a battle. Frozen timbres paint a bleak meditation on death.

Stanze will without doubt repay further hearings. This was a memorable première.

SOLO for trombone and orchestra demands the talents of someone like Christian Lindberg (here dressed like a leather-trousered Harlequin); it is wide-ranging in its virtuosity, and the soloist did not disappoint. Different modes of attack on a single note defined the sense of movement at the opening. Lindberg (astonishingly, performing the twenty-minute work from memory) conveyed a palpable sense of theatre. The musical argument was grippingly presented.

How much rehearsal time, what with two important Berio items on the programme, had been allocated to Stravinsky’s Petrushka, I wonder? There was a careful slant to the trickier passages, balance was sometimes awry and the overall conception seemed lacking in cohesion. Highlights came from individual contributions (creamy clarinet, plangent bassoon etc) rather than from any sense of the whole and even the famous ‘Russian Dance’ was vivacious without being truly incisive. This Petrushka felt curiously dull and lifeless, a pity after the hugely impressive Berio pieces that preceded it.

Colin Clarke

 


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