Seen and Heard Concert Review
Henze,Stockhausen,Kagel: London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, 6.12.2006 (AO)
Two Kammersymphonies framed this concert, both revisions of earlier works. Composers have always made revisions, frequently after performance. In new music especially, where creative growth is a cornerstone belief, revision is a natural part of the process. It’s difficult to comprehend a new music composer “not” accepting the idea of music as organic.
Henze’s Kammersymphonie 05 is a 2005 reworking of his First Symphony, itself revised in 1963. It’s fascinating because it demonstrates how Henze, at 80, has the courage to re examine his own past, and evaluate what he’s learned. His First Symphony was written in 1947. The young composer was exhilarated by his discovery of so much which the Nazis suppressed – “degenerate” new music, freedom of expression, cosmopolitan ideas. Germany was still occupied, and hardship prevailed, but for young Henze, it was liberation in the deepest spiritual sense. This was the era when he wrote Boulevard Solitude, the opera which made his name, with its heady mix of “new” ideas and the traditional. Henze hasn’t written out his youthful fascination with 40’s jazz, nor the melodic lyricism that would bring him into conflict with the ascetic views of Darmstadt. Instead, he honours them by adding references to his later work, as if he were seeing in his early work glimmerings of what he would later produce. This version is an older, wiser man’s evaluation of his career, an act of thoughtful self assessment. Heard in the context of his later work, it’s quite moving.
The wonderful, long viola
solo central to the piece, is spectacular, played with exquisite virtuosity by
Paul Silverthorne. That so young a composer could have written something so
rich and imaginative shows how original he was, and would become. Controversial
and provocative, Henze hasn’t shied from writing “beautiful” music even when
painfully aware of the horrors of the real world. That sort of magical lyricism
is an integral part of his overall vision. If anything, he makes it clearer and
purer, despite all that has happened.
The piece evolved from an attempt in 1973 to write a work in two tones, with open instrumentation which would vary with each performance. In 1996, he revised it with defined instrumentation to bring out more precisely his original idea of doubling tonal pitch. It’s also a highly theatrical piece, inspiring vivid images of pattern and colour. For example, a four note sequence kept ascending, like steps or a plateau. It formed a kind of backbone, on which the piece as a whole progressed. Sometimes the piano led the sequences, sometimes the violin. The colours of sound seemed to weave intricate, repeating patterns, continually varying and refracting as if in a prism. Throughout there seemed to be a kind of dialogue, slowly unfolding: at times I imagined a powerful animal doing a ritual dance, or nature sounds. Specifics hardly matter: Kagel is a film maker after all, and for him imagination of all kinds is valid. At the very end, the music disappears suddenly with a swoop, as if it’s all going down a plughole. It’s extremely witty.
The relatively quiet passages seethed with subterranean activity, for Kagel uses effects like cymbals beaten by brushes, which create a multi layered swathe of sound, rather than single tones. The brass was muted in various ways, again spreading the sound rather than concentrating it in one burst. I was surprised to hear how subtle a trombone can be, when played as sensitively – and quietly – as Michael Lloyd did. Coincidentally, there’s a long, complex viola part in the Kagel piece, just as there is in the Henze. Again, Kagel, like Henze, is too mature to be afraid of harmony. They’ve both passed the stage when doctrines like “no melody!” hold sway. They write convincingly because they don’t have anything to prove. So they revise, because this music will last.
Sandwiching Stockhausen between Henze and Kagel did him no favours. His Five Star Signs come from a bigger work covering all 12 signs of the zodiac and their “personality types”. As such, each short piece does seem to illustrate the “types” well, for example, “Libra” reflecting the even tempered balance of the sign. As such, they’re an excellent introduction to new music, because they’re accessible. Alas I was left thinking whether there was something I wasn’t getting because I expected too much. Luckily, I overheard a knowledgeable man in the audience talking to a friend. To him, the pieces were “touchingly inept”, a wonderful description! Sophisticated they are not but they’re charming in their own way. Knussen conducted them twice over. Personally I’d rather have heard the Kagel twice, but that would have been tough on the musicians.