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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Tristan Murail: Pascal Rophé (conductor), Soloists from the Philharmonia Orchestra, Sounds Intermedia, Queen Elizabeth hall, London 18.05.2006 (AO)


Wagner, Britten, Prokofiev:Mark Padmore (tenor) Laurence Davies (horn), Hugh Wolff (conductor), The Philharmonia Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 18.05.2006 (AO)

Tristan Murail’s work is cutting edge, exploring the very nature of sound. Using insights from psychoacoustics, he constructs intricate patterns of sound almost beyond the threshold of hearing. Microtones as subtle as an eighth of a tone merge seamlessly to form bizarre harmonies that seem to rise from within the ear and imagination. Yet music as technically complex as this, and as abstract, is grounded in human experience. Treize couleurs du soleil couchant (1978) was inspired by watching the colours in a sunset rapidly but imperceptibly shifting. “Beginning with a hazy luminescence”, says the composer “the piece mounts towards a blaze of light, only to descend, finally, to gravity and sombreness”. Computer technology has given Murail a whole new chromatic palette, yet his Winter fragments (2000) in its London premiére, blends synthesized and natural sound so well that they sound organic. Fragments of harmony repeat, each time subtly changing nuance. The reverberations of sound from the piano merge with those from the MIDI keyboard. The dry, desolate metallic sounds from the computer meet the plaintive cries of clarinet and flute. Winter fragments works on many levels: it is Murail’s meditation on the death of his partner in psychoacoustic music, Gérard Grisey. It marks his move from France. It captures the special sharp quality of light in the dense snowscapes of America, and the inescapable fragility of life. You can analyse a sentence by parsing its grammar: but to understand its soul, you must think like a poet.

How that proved true in the second concert of the evening. The Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde are perhaps some of the most intensely emotional pieces ever written. Yet Wolff managed to drag them out so slowly that that the tension that makes them potent was ironed out. The details were beautiful, as one would expect from musicians of this calibre. But what was the vision behind this tranquilised interpretation? In the absence of an Isolde, the players might have had a chance to show just how vivid Wagner’s orchestration can be. Instead, it came over as comatose. The grammar was there, but where was the poetry?

Wolff’s penchant for holding long silences and standing in profile continued through Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. The mannered pauses distracted from the dramatic thrust of the cycle. The same somnolent pace that marked the Wagner was applied to Britten. For whatever reason, Padmore was certainly not his usual self. His forte is power and clarity, the result of years of grounding in early music and the baroque. He can, and has, applied his strengths to this cycle in the past, but tonight wasn’t at his best. His tessitura was so high and strained that it affected his diction. When he sang lines in a lower register, something of the real sonority of his voice appeared, but t wasn’t consistent or sustained. Laurence Davies on horn, brought out some of the underlying nightmare surrealism in the piece, but it wasn’t his night either. Nonetheless, even devoid of the darker interpretations that an insightful performance can give, this is exquisite music, and there was wild applause.

Excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet followed. This was an altogether livelier affair, tempi restored to their familiar vigour. The orchestra responded with panache. This is colourful music for ballet, after all, with no pretensions about being profound. Wolff was at his best, allowing himself, his players and the audience to enjoy the music for sheer pleasure. When all is said and done, music should be enjoyed. For me, it was a great delight to learn that at least two members of the audience who had come for this concert had listened to the Murail as well, and enjoyed it very much. Even “new music” speaks to people when it has poetry in its soul.

Anne Ozorio




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)