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Seen and Heard International Festival Review

 

9. Muenchener Biennale, 12-28 May, 2004 reviewed by John Warnaby

 

Marc André: „… 22,13 …" Music-Theatre Passion in Three Parts, for four instrumental groups, seven female singers and live electronics; texts from the gospels and the Revelation of St. John; premiere: 20 May, 2004.

Philharmonisches Orchester der Staatstheater Mainz, GmbH,

conducted by Peter Hirsch; Stage Director: Georges Delnon.

 

Vykintas Baltakas: Cantio; librettist: Sharon Lynn Joyce;

premiere: 18 May, 2004. Muenchener Kammerorchester, conducted by Christoph Poppen; Stage Director: Oskaras Korsunovas.

 

Brian Ferneyhough: Shadowtime; librettist: Charles Bernstein;

premiere: 25 May, 2004. Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart; Nicolas Hodges – Piano and Voice; Mats Scheidegger – Guitar; Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, conducted by Jurjen Hempel; Stage Director: Frédéric Fisbach..

 

Qu Xiao-song: Versuchung; librettist: Durs Gruenbein;

premiere: 13 May, 2004: Zhuang Zhou: Gong Dong-jian, Baritone; Madame Tian: Wu Bi-xia, Soprano; Orchester der Zeitgenoessischen Oper Berlin, conducted by Ruediger Bohn; Stage Director: Sabrina Hoelzer.

 

Johannes Maria Staud: Berenice; librettist: Durs Gruenbein;

premiere: 12 May, 2004. Egaeus: Matthias Bundschuh, Speaker and Otto Katzameier, Bass-Baritone; Berenice: Dorothee Mields, Soprano; Klangforum Wien, conducted by Stefan Asbury. Stage Director: Claus Guth.

 

Two Aspects of Modernism

 

 

The original modernists of the Second Viennese School extended the ‘romantic’ notion that musical language could convey intellectual ideas as profound as those associated with verbal language. This principle was given fresh impetus in the late 1940s, when a modernist sensibility achieved an even more intense form of expression. Brian Ferneyhough – ultimately, a disciple of Schoenberg – has kept faith with this aesthetic for more than 30 years and may be considered one of its principal present-day exponents. His extraordinary grasp of German, as well as English, has given him a fascinating insight into two rich traditions. With the help of his librettist, Charles Bernstein, he has devised a highly individual brand of music-theatre, based around the intellectual life of Walter Benjamin: its relationship to the society of his time and European culture, including his particular interpretation of history. In the process, Ferneyhough has matched Bernstein’s poetic word-play with music of convincing complexity and expressive power. Shadowtime is a philosophical opera, breathing new life into the ideas of an intellectual elite which all but vanished after the 1930s.

 

Marc André is a younger protagonist of modernism, with an equally striking combination of French background and German tutelage, mainly from Helmut Lachenmann. He is also a Protestant Christian, so that "…22,13 …" includes a theological element with reference not only to the Book of Revelations, but also to the Passion story. It is also concerned with history, but in contrast to Shadowtime it concentrates on specific events and how they might relate to a vision of the end of time. In different ways, both exemplify the stylistic consistency that characterises high modernism. The title "… 22,13 …" refers to the verse in The Book of Revelations that provided the fundamental concept: "I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last", etc. There was no conventional libretto, but André selected three 20th-century events that emphasised the triumph of inhumanity: the loss by Garry Kasparov to the chess computer Deep Blue, whose moves helped determine the proportions of the music; Ingmar Bergman’s film "The Seventh Seal", with its emphasis on death, and the train that carried French prisoners of the Nazis on a tortuous journey of 57 days from Toulouse to Dachau Concentration Camp.

 

Likewise, the work was divided into three parts and the music operated on three levels: a sombre ensemble, predominantly of instruments in the lower registers and distributed around the audience; whispering voices heard over loudspeakers, whose texts were only occasionally audible, an electronic component, whose spatial location paralleled the ensemble. In contrast to earlier manifestations of modernism, the music unfolded as a ritual whose tension was sustained by both cast and orchestra. It was matched by a stage picture populated with images of death and dehumanisation. There was no singing for nearly an hour, and the voices disappeared some time before the conclusion of the 90-minute score.

 

In 2000 Marc André had appeared alongside the Ferneyhough pupil Claus Steffen Mahnkopf to announce the creation of a new modernist manifesto. The event followed the premiere of Mahnkopf’s theatrical concert based on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus and Walter Benjamin’s interpretation. It is conceivable that a remnant of influence informed Les Froissements des Ailes de Gabriel: a concerto for guitar and ensemble – Part II of Brian Ferneyhough’s Shadowtime.

 

Shadowtime is Ferneyhough’s unique contribution to music-theatre: essentially his magnum opus, incorporating most of the fundamental elements of his creative imagination. The overall structure, though not the actual music, is comparable with the earlier Carceri d’invenzione cycle. Both have seven sections, pivoting around the fourth movement; and in each work, the advent of electronics in the final part introduces a metaphysical dimension. In both, the basic material is outlined in the opening section, though in this respect Shadowtime is more complex in that it also adumbrates metaphorical and philosophical aspects. Accordingly Part I was divided into six brief episodes whose impetus stemmed from Benjamin’s failure to cross the French-Spanish border into exile and his subsequent suicide. It contained the only realistic element in the work, particularly about the nature of time and history, could be explored – hence Ferneyhough’s description of Shadowtime as "a thought opera".

 

In response to the ambiguity of Benjamin’s thought, Ferneyhough’s formal scheme was subject to more than one interpretation. Thus, the organisation of the work contained suggestions of a palindrome. Part II – inspired by the notion that "angels are deaf to time" – was matched by part VI, for speaker and ensemble, where the Angel of History was depicted as Melancolia. Accordingly the kaleidoscopic interplay between guitar and ensemble was echoed by the equally kaleidoscopic interplay between music and poetry. Above all, Part VI was almost as ‘abstract’ in character as Part II. Besides reducing the poetic content to pure sound, Ferneyhough related Benjamin’s use of allegory to one of the most potent symbols of the Renaissance. Likewise, the canonic writing of Part III, the Doctrine of Similarity, for chorus and ensemble, was expanded into the various contrapuntal and other formal devices surveyed in Part V, the encounter between Benjamin’s spirit and various mythological or historical figures in Hades. Finally, while Part I could be regarded as an ‘exposition’, ultimately leading to Benjamin’s descent into the underworld in Part IV, Opus Contra Naturam, the remaining sections might be interpreted as an ascent, leading to a ‘recapitulation’ in Part VII, Stelae for Failed Time, for chorus and electronics, where the basic material attained fulfilment in a timeless, even metaphysical sound-world. On one level, the various transformations gave Shadowtime a clear sense of direction. At the same time, as the electronically modified voice faded at the conclusion, there was a definite impression the entire cycle could begin again.

 

Although only a small orchestra was deployed, and was absent from two sections, the overall production was surprisingly large-scale for such an ‘abstract’ concept, including a virtuoso chamber choir, a guitar soloist, a speaker, and a stage set designed as an analogue to events in the score.

Equally significant was Ferneyhough’s avoidance of extended, or unconventional vocal and instrumental techniques. Nevertheless, the precision of the musical discourse meant that the utmost interpretative and technical virtuosity was required. Nicolas Hodges was particularly impressive in his dual capacity as speaker and pianist, not least in combining the two roles in Opus Contra Naturam. No less remarkable was the conductor Jurjen Hempel who exercised complete control throughout the work.

 

In comparison with Marc André’s bleak view of culture and of history Shadowtime offered a slightly more optimistic interpretation. It suggested that Ferneyhough and his librettist had come close to realising their basic concept, but also that abstract ideas could provide the stimulus for a powerful music-theatrical experience.

 

The other three operas paid less attention to a unified style, thereby inclining towards post-modernism. Their basic concepts were less ambitious and two of them were relatively conventional. The exception, with regard to the latter, was Cantio, by Vykintas Baltakas; easily the most concise of the five works, loosely based on an ancient Greek myth about the development of song. The action took place mainly within a cube containing most of the accoutrements of contemporary civilisation. The teeming activity during the early stages of the work, symbolising the diversity of life, had a Breughelian dimension, but the element of chaos was gradually dispelled as song emerged, in accordance with the title.

 

However, it was difficult to judge the work’s full potential, as there was such a discrepancy between the premiere and the total conviction evident in the third performance, especially in respect of the music.

 

While Baltakas and his librettist, Sharon Joyce, were inspired by ancient Greece, Qu Xiao-song drew on two equally venerable traditions of Chinese theatre, combined with elements of Western composition, to create "Versuchung", the Test. He used a mixed ensemble, comprising Chinese plucked and wind instruments, plus percussion, together with a group of Western strings. However, there was no suggestion of ‘cross-over’, and Siegfried Mauser, the German pianist and musicologist, offered the intriguing observation that the work combined a Western notion of form with an Oriental understanding of time.

 

Although superficially similar to the plot of Cosi Fan Tutte, the story of a sage who feigned his death to test the fidelity of his wife, was also essentially Chinese, complete with moral, especially as it was presented in a mainly contemplative manner, framed by a prologue and epilogue, and enacted by masked figures. There were times when the conductor and ensemble also wore masks, as they were drawn into the action: the former as King of the dead; the latter as skeletons who inhabited his realm. Though the European ensemble was under-used, the performances were compelling, with Wu Bi-xia outstanding as Madame Tian, the wife, who brought a timeless dimension to the work.

 

From the outset, Johannes Maria Staud’s Berenice was conceived as a collaborative venture with his librettist, Durs Gruenbein. The challenge was to create a music-theatrical correlative to the short story by Edgar Allan Poe, while alluding to 17th-century classic French theatre, and even to ancient Greece. Again, a framing device was employed, consisting of members of the cast singing, in declamatory style, into loudhailers accompanied, predominantly, by the brass.

 

The music operated on three distinct levels and was undeniably interesting, as a development of Staud’s creative imagination. Electronics formed the background, supporting not only Staud’s familiar manner, but also pastiches of popular styles. The different layers underwent various transformations, yet the popular material, though well integrated, lacked the incisive character necessary to render it more than a pleasant diversion. Moreover, the mixture of speech and singing throughout the work was not entirely convincing. The score included some clanking sounds, reflecting Poe’s, or even Gruenbein’s bizarre imagination; the staging certainly emphasised the macabre elements of the story. Nevertheless, the general consensus was that there was a discrepancy between the music and the rather diverse aspects of the production.

 

The five operas of the 9th Muenchener Biennale probably achieved a higher overall standard than hitherto. They undoubtedly exemplified the range and considerable potential of contemporary music-theatre.

 

In addition, there were a number of supporting events. Peter Ruzicka supplemented his activities as Director of the Biennale by conducting a concert with the Munich Philharmonic. The programme was to have included Helmut Lachenmann’s re-composed Third String Quartet, under the revised title "Gridone", but it was replaced by "Tableau" – one of Lachenmann’s shorter scores, given a powerful interpretation. It was preceded by Wilhelm Killmayer’s sparse First Symphony from the 1960s, and followed "Anstieg – Ausblick" by the late Ulrich Stranz, whose originality has been undeservedly over-shadowed by more familiar developments in new music. The highlight, however, was Allan Pettersson’s Seventh Symphony, with which Peter Ruzicka and the orchestra had a strong affinity.

 

Klangspuren is a regular series in which each concert is devised by a featured composer who discusses his music with Siegfried Mauser. There were two concerts during the Biennale, both involving Ensemble Triolog. The subject of the first was Qu Xiao-song, who introduced his work in the context of other Oriental composers, Bernhard Weidner, from Munich, was featured in the second concert. Two of his pieces were heard in conjunction with other German composers, notably Lachenmann and Rihm.

There were also two late evening piano recitals. Siegfried Mauser played Wolfgang Rihm’s sequence, Zwiesprache, interspersed with readings by the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. The following evening, Christopher Tainton offered a monumental interpretation of Charles Ives’ Second Piano Sonata to a particularly enthusiastic audience.

 

In Germany Munich is often regarded as a culturally conservative city, yet with the Biennale, Hans Werner Henze, and now, Peter Ruzicka have infused an element of radicalism. Some of the smaller events were not well attended, but there was sufficient interest to justify three performances of all five operas. Not every Biennale can boast outstanding successes, but its latest manifestation has achieved an overall standard it will not be easy to match.

 

John Warnaby



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