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Transcendent – The music of Helmut Lachenmann: Noriko Kawai (piano) / RCM Symphony Orchestra / Pierre-André Valade. Royal College of Music, London. 17.11.2006 (ED)


Helmut Lachenmann’s seventieth birthday went almost unmarked in this country last year. To make amends, the Royal College of Music and the London Sinfonietta have been collaborating on a week long festival dedicated to his music. Indeed, what better place might there be to perform the music of one who has long challenged the accepted notions and conventions of his medium, than a conservatoire.


Lachenmann has spent over forty years confronting audiences to demand that they rethink how they listen when hearing his music. Both works in this concert hold key places in his oeuvre to date and demonstrate his techniques writ large for full orchestra. For anyone approaching Lachenmann for the first time large scale forces could well be advantageous given that the musical results, although intricate, are not so minute as to be easily missed providing one listens attentively, with open ears and a willingness to form associations along the way.


Ausklang, a piano concerto of around 50 minutes’ duration, dates from 1984-5. As with much of Lachenmann’s output, it seeks to subvert melody and replace harmony by confronting the listener with sounds free from boundaries. But, perhaps, there is the problem – no sound is ever free from overtones and individual resonances – and it is on these factors that much of Lachenmann’s music depends. Structure too presents its own contradictions in that the work is written ostensibly as single movement or span, but sub-sections can be discerned within it. That they can be described with approximation using standard symphonic-concerto terms to indicate a scherzo, trio section, a cadenza of a single note and finale summation at least helps the listener to get some grasp on the piece.


Thinking of the techniques Lachenmann employs brings to mind the work of two painters prominent in 1960s Germany: Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz. The linking of time and place is not coincidental: Lachenmann formed his creative path in the same political milieu that determined all to overthrow conventions. Kiefer is well known for physically inflicting his canvasses to cause them deliberate harm – painting with a pickaxe or blowtorch to scar or sear his pieces. Baselitz’s works are often dark in colour and hung upside down to deliberately disorientate the viewer. Lachenmann’s musical versions see instrumentalists redefine how their instruments are played and consequently new sounds are brought into being. The soloist plays not just the keyboard, but is asked to hit parts of the instrument casing with a hammer whilst holding down keys or to run fingernails along the front of the keys to produce resonances; violinists play the scroll of the instrument with a bow for the same reason.


A B-flat triad pervades the score, though often illusive in its pure form, and the pianist presents it in a wide variety of manners and situations as the work progresses. Its presence is central to the manner in which Lachenmann dares his audience to change the way they hear. Gone are musical ideas as sequential developments, here they appear isolated from each other or in direct and simultaneous competition. With the piano as the agent of idea generation set to the fore on stage, the orchestra is utilised as a massive prism for the refraction, reconstitution and gathering of off-shoot sound-associations from the soloist. This forces the act of listening to become more than anything else spatially sensitive, as Lachenmann radically alters ones sense of musical perspective. Key moments found instruments seated further back relayed though speakers to appear in the foreground, as opposed to where one knew them to physically be.


Listening in three dimensions seems at first strange, but how else might one draw together relevant associations between instruments placed at the front and back, or left and right of the stage. The experience might yet have had more impact if the seating was at the same level as the stage, thus enabling a more realistic impression of height-sound relationships to be gained. The strings were seated some feet lower than the raised percussion and brass. With associations often made between the groups, the indistinctness of their spatial relationship lost a little of the impact that could have been made.


Precision rather than emotion was the key to this successful performance, and Noriko Kawai brought plenty of the former to her part along with strength of attack when needed. Given the opportunity to give the Steinway a good hammering (literally), a pity that she did it so timidly – one might have thought that given Lachenmann’s willingness to push boundaries he would have urged at least one really hard hit, but no. This was a reading of a work which has its introspective moments and in performance they carried the greater impact because of their inherent restraint. The RCM Orchestra under Pierre-André Valade met Lachenmann’s many demands head-on with unbounded enthusiasm.


After the 50-minute interval, came the UK premiere of Kontrakadenz, a 20-minute work for orchestra dating from 1970-1. If anything the work instantly showed a starker aesthetic than Ausklang. Taking its cue from the sound of a ping-pong ball bouncing, with the bounces becoming successively quicker as they progress, rhythm was all-important. Pitch was all but non-existent, as Lachenmann’s concern was precise control over the seemingly random. Balls bounced somewhere within the orchestra, metal discs spun on tables and, at one point, two metal tubs filled with water sloshed back and forth to establish a rhythmic pattern in various guises, all ‘played’ by ‘ad hoc’ orchestral players. Radios whirred in and out of reception gave some distinctness in this context to a normally indistinct sound. Conventional instruments picked up on patterns and atmospheres to elaborate on, mutate or ignore them almost at will.


The performance showed up a certain brutalism in the music. Instrumental figurations often seemed initially unlikely in their association - bows against the edge of cymbals combined with strongly hit percussion and rasping bassoons, for example - yet they held momentary interest before dissolving into another combination. Elements of spatial juxtaposition noted in Ausklang were as prominent. Valade once urged the orchestra to a fearsome climax that was at the edge of being comfortable for the hall, to contrast with the essential quietness of the work’s driving concept. The opportunity for a second performance immediately afterwards was taken, but was it such a wise idea? With the shock of the new replaced to some extent by the inevitably less immediate predictability of what was to happen, the ability to accurately hear the minutiae of inner resonances so central to Lachenmann’s work might have been diminished slightly.


No matter how hard one tries to overthrow convention, the results often remain bound by it: concerts with audiences sat in tidy rows showing their appreciation through applause. This concert was no different. Even if those present had succeeded in thinking outside normal musical parameters something as radical must yet happen before collective ingenuity is brought to expressions of understanding or approval. But that may never happen; and, one might think, more is the pity if it does not.


Evan Dickerson


The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now programme, 25 November 2006 at 11.00pm.



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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)