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Luigi NONO (1924-1990)
Prometeo, Tragedia dellíascolto (1984-6)
Petra Hoffman, Monika Baer (sopranos); Susanne Otto, Noa Frankel (altos); Hubert Meyer (tenor); Sigrun Schell, Gregor Dalal (speakers)
Solistenchor, Freiburg; Ensemble Recherche; Solistenensemble des Philharmonischen Orchesters Freiburg; Solistenensemble des SWR Sinfonieorchesters Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Experimentalstudio für akustische Kunst; former Experimentalstudio der Heinrich-Stobel-Stiftung des Südwestrundfunks; Andre Richard (director); Peter Hirsch, (conductor 1); Kwame Ryan, (conductor 2)
rec. 16-19 May 2003, Konzerthaus Freiburg.
COL LEGNO WWE 2SACD 20605 [66:38 + 64:54]
Experience Classicsonline



This is a smash and grab hit in more ways than one! When it was first released, single-minded thieves broke into the distributorís warehouse in Vienna and stole 1000 copies. Since only 2000 copies were made in the first place, thatís half the worldís stock! This disc was deliberately targeted as the thieves had to move away crates of other, more popular recordings to get to it. They also took 200 copies of another Nono rarity. Why go to such trouble when they could have made so much more money with, say, Mozartís Greatest Hits?

Itís true that secondhand, the first recording of Prometeo costs £50 at least, and the far rarer recording of Il canto sospeso, conducted by Abbado, costs £75 upwards, if you can find it. Col Legno certainly doesnít benefit from the theft, though, as the 1000 recordings legally available retail at £25. This is remarkably good value indeed, as Prometeo requires vast forces Ė four orchestral ensembles, a choir, vocal and instrumental soloists, two conductors and a team of sound artists. This recording, too, has Andre Richard as artistic director. Richard worked closely with Nono as the piece was developed, so his insights are extremely valuable. No one interested in Nono should miss this. As always, good recordings are better value because youíll listen to them far longer than inferior but cheaper cover versions. This is the real thing. Hopefully, it will be a success and Col Legno can press extra copies. Why should the black market benefit?

Prometeo is a work on a grand scale, a panoramic exploration of western civilisation, past and present. It starts with references to Gaia, the ancient world-spirit, and to Prometheus, who brought light from the Gods to man. Thereís no narrative. It works, instead, as a highly sophisticated stream of consciousness, ideas unfolding impressionistically. Words and sounds fragment, building up inlayers and textures. This is the opposite of ego-driven music where one element is above another. Instead, Prometeo is like a finely woven thread where all elements exist in relation to each other. The overall effect is of oscillating, shimmering lines that flow, endlessly turning and being re examined. Conventional instruments are played in unusual ways, augmented and elaborated by electronics. Tempi and intervals vary. Silence, not noise, is paradoxically the aim behind this complexity. "It all has to be much quieter" said Nono frequently when he worked on the first performance, because the goal was that people should listen carefully. The word "Ascolta" rings out clearly. This isnít music to be audited while affecting a mask of clinical detachment. Itís music that needs to be engaged with.

Nono told his speakers and singers not to read the text, but to feel it. Thatís why the texts, fragment and reform as if in a kaleidoscope. They turn over endlessly in the imagination. Far from distorting meaning, this expands it. Anyone with a basic knowledge of early music will recognise the idea from medieval polyphony. Everyone more or less knew what the "words" meant on the surface but the true glory of the music revealed itself in the mingling of sound elements. Indeed, itís because the words arenít instantly obvious that youíre drawn to listening more attentively. This recording comes with a special "Listening score" which sets out each vocal part in layers, so you can see as well as hear how each voice takes on a particular syllable or sound, and how they blend and interweave. Thus you can follow how a short phrase like "né voce di Orfeo" expands and grows. Following the score isnít essential, though, because itís important to be alert to the details that flicker past, like a small quote from Schumannís "Manfred" for example, which I still havenít located, but just knowing itís there adds to my appreciation. This is music that "opens out" in more than sound and space.

Word-setting like this is fascinating. In the second part of the fourth movement, almost at the heart of the whole piece, thereís a fragment from Hölderlin, the poet who wrote about Arcadia, an idealised, perfect vision of ancient Greece. Brahms set these very words in his own "Schicksalslied" but the two treatments could not be more different. Nono places the phrase "Doch uns ist gegeben auf keine Stätte zu ruhn" (unto us is given no place to rest) so the words curl over each other, restlessly expressing deep anguish. No wonder Hölderlinís late work has such meaning for 20th century composers, for whom it mirrors the unstable turbulence of the modern world. People are tossed about, says Hölderlin, "blinding wie Wasser von Klippe zu Klippe" (blindly like water from cliff to cliff). Itís a disturbingly violent image, and yet so appropriate. There isnít much hard ground in Prometeo, for it keeps floating and oscillating in free form. There are "islands" at various points where for a moment things seem to stabilise, only to float off again.

Why is the piece subtitled "Tragedia dellíascolta" (the tragedy of listening)? That is one of the mysteries that makes this piece so intriguing, and makes repeat listenings addictive. Perhaps Nono means that no matter how much we listen, time and life will move on inexorably. Like Hölderlinís dislocated people, thereís no place of rest. And yet, should we cease to bother with listening? Would that make things easier or would it mean the death of civilisation and human endeavour? The beauty of this piece is that it allows for so many possibilities, and rewards personal involvement. Much has been made of Nonoís politics but itís a dead-end forcing onto this music any specific ideological template. Rather, one should perhaps think of Nonoís underlying motivation, which was his love for humanity. He hated fascism because it was authoritarian, forcing people into prescribed limitations. Prometeo, with its breaking of rigid form, and its ambiguities, allows so much room for interpretation, that responsibility is placed on the individual listener to engage and respond.. "Only when we reflect Ö on a world that is not one dimensional, not linear or causal, and not unambiguous, will it become possible to think beyond the ordinary, for a new, hopeful perspective" writes Lydia Jeschke, who knows Nonoís music so well.

On 8 and 9 May, 2008, at Londonís South Bank, thereíll be two performances of Prometeo live, with the London Sinfonietta and others. Andre Richard will be on hand, too, as will the Freiburg Experimental Studio we hear here. No CD can possibly match the experience of hearing Nono live and in real-time, but this recording is as close as it gets. Itís made for SACD and uses the latest in sound technology to capture the finest detail. In the real world, people listen multi-directionally, not mono-aurally. Whatís good about this disc is that sound is captured with such vivid freshness that in this sense alone its ambience outclasses earlier recordings. Anyone interested in Nono will be getting this disc whether or not they can get to the London performances - or to those in Europe. The thieves who ransacked the Vienna warehouse to steal 1000 copies of this disc certainly had excellent taste!

Anne Ozorio

 

see also Luigi Nono and the British Musical Intelligentsia by Stephen Beville

 


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