Monday 16 June 2008

Hungarian nonsense and Living Toys - Ades and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

Our second report from 2008's Aldeburgh festival features the first concert from the Snape Maltings. Thomas Ades led the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in an adventurous programme of modern music, one piece of which was finished only this year and even the oldest was only complete in the year of my birth.

This was a bold programme even by Aldeburgh's standards, and the hall was at best half full. Perhaps they had been put off by one name on bill which filled me with trepidation: Gerald Barry. I first came across him in a 2005 concert at the same venue, also led by Ades which, alongside some of his own music and a fine Beethoven 4th symphony, featured a piece called L’Agitation des Observateurs, Le Tremblement des Voyeurs, which is best described as making Chinese water torture seem like a soak in a hot bath filled with Radox. The idea behind the piece was about waves washing up on the shore and being slightly different each time. It wasn't. Instead the same notes were repeated over and over again. It was truly painful. My dislike of the composer was further exacerbated by one of the most pretentious programme notes I've come across where Barry answered a question as to what any of that had to do with the voyeurism of the title:

When the postman knocks with a letter you don't open the door and say "Why?"

Similarly with the title of this piece. It came to me and I accepted it.

It didn't call for an explanation. Everything is in the title.

If he says so, would that he had taken the package and marked it return to sender.

The prospect of more such fare filled me with some dread. Beethoven is a setting of three of the composer's letters to his immortal beloved. Thankfully it is much more enjoyable. However, the flaws of the previous work are still evident, with the settings not being especially interesting while remaining deeply repetitive; however, the repetitions are fairly colourful orchestrally. There is a nice interlude between letters two and three where Beethoven, the bass Stephen Richardson, snorts contemptuously at a Bertini etude. Most bizarrely, however, letter three is set the tune of Oh come all ye faithful, it was written on July 7th so if there was a reason for this the programme note does not provide it, perhaps our friend the postman once again holds the key. This was a nice orchestration, and Barry nicely bundles the platitudes at the close of the letter into a mad rush. The ensemble under Ades play it very well, though I can't help but notice the most interesting moments musically are not those composed by Barry himself. I also think he's missed a trick in quotations from the great master, or lack thereof.

After the interval came Kurtag, whose works are being celebrated this festival in a density the composer has likely never seen, and likely never will again. Messages of the Late Miss R. V. Troussova is a song cycle of twenty or so miniatures and was performed with the addition of soprano Natalia Zagorinskaia. Orchestrally this was rather of the whirr-plonk school, you felt he'd brought in everything including the kitchen sink, and it often didn't feel necessary. There wasn't enough variety either, as the piece wore on. Too often her voice was called to adopt a tone akin to a fire alarm. I felt no great sense of structure. The ensemble once again played exceptionally though. The man himself, who was present, is clearly overjoyed by the celebration, and went round shaking the hands of all the players; it is as well this was not a symphony orchestra. If the work is representative of the composer it could be a long festival, particularly Thursday's concert, dedicated to him entirely.

The last piece was an early Ades composition from 1993: Living Toys. It was quite something. The evocations were vivid, especially of the Angel, the Soldier and the Battle. The piece shifted organically from one section to the next, and yet it was always crystal clear when it had moved on. A particular highlight was H.A.L.'s Death, inspired by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course, in that H.A.L. sings Daisy, Daisy as Bowman switches him off, becoming more and more computerised and electronic as his capacities diminish. As might be expected, Ades' take is rather different. He finds an emptiness of space that calls to mind the solo horn Interstellar Call from Messiaen's Des Canyons aux Etioles.... The CD was for sale in the foyer, I held off purchasing until hearing the piece and had to dash off afterwards, but when I return tonight, I will be making a purchase.

But the concert had, rather unfortunately, saved the best for first. I first encountered Ligeti at the 2005 Edinburgh festival with his piece for 100 metronomes - these are arranged in four squares of 25 and set going about ten minutes before the performances is due to start. The audience enters and listens as they slowly wind down and the sound changes as they stop. It's glorious. With Pipes, Drums and Reed Fiddles is arguably better. The programme notes that he set poems by Edward Lear, as a lover of The Jumblies and The Owl and the Pussycat I was thrilled. This is, however, different Hungarian nonsense poetry; but any disappointment was short lived. The array of percussion across the stage was awesome and reminiscent of a BBC Young Musician percussion final. The four members of the ensemble danced around from vibraphone to dustbin and at the front wonderfully charismatic mezzo Katalin Karolyi held us in thrall. Her characterisation of the mountain in the first piece was to die for. And whether the poem was translatable or not she was bursting with life. While there was perhaps the widest range of instruments of the evening, it was all judged to perfection and never felt unnecessary: no kitchen sink syndrome here. Whether it was xylophones and bowed cymbals or just three whistles or four harmonicas it seemed exactly right. The pieces were silly but wonderfully so. This was modern music at its best. The rapturous reception was well deserved. I don't know if a recording exists, but if it does I will find it. In the meantime, the performance appears on Radio 3's Hear and Now on 28th of June, listen for the Ligeti if nothing else.

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