The Rambler :: blog

Friday, October 01, 2004

Warsaw Part IV 

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Part I here
Part II here
Part III here

Mazovian Center of Culture and Art
22 Elektoralna

There are no world premières in this afternoon's concert, so it won't get featured in any reviews, but it looks a good one nonetheless, and particularly looking forward to the last work, Carola Bauckholt's Treibstoff. Before heading over here I had a pretty good slab of chocolate torta in the coffee shop next door to the Europejski. This is supposed to be one of Warsaw's best coffee and cake shops, but while good it wasn't as tasty as its equivalent in Budapest, say. And the decor was nowhere near gaudy enough to compete with most Central European cafes: not enough gilt and marble. Still, the cake had the obligatory hit of brandy-soaked cherries, and plenty of them, so pretty good nevertheless.

Formal beds in the Saxon GardensWalking to Elektoralna through the Saxon Gardens it strikes me that these are some of the most beautiful public city gardens I know. The layout is grandiose, the planting unusually varied, and there's the sheer number of trees to top it all. It's laid out according to formal lines, with a long central vista with symmetrical flower beds. This monumental, neo-classical design situates it smoothly into its surrounding Soviet street plan (the unbroken axis through the centre of the gardens takes you past the tomb of the unknown soldier, across Pilsudski square and down to Krakowskie Przedmiescie and the presidential palace - it's the symbolic heart of Warsaw, and is a regular marching route for the military honour guard), as well as providing an ironic commentary upon it.Pilsudski Square

There are six pieces in this concert, but apart from Hanna Kulenty (who is half-Dutch anyway), there are no Poles. Almost certainly as a result, the audience is much smaller than this time yesterday. The performers, the Thürmchen Ensemble, are here from Germany. I recognise their violinist as the woman who walked off with all the coffee this morning at hotel breakfast.

The opening work, U-mul [The Well] by Younghi Pagh-Paan leaves little impression on me. It's fragmented, gestural, and relies on a soundworld at least influenced by Pagh-Paan's Korean home. The programme notes talk of the work's political aspects, using the notion of water and its fair distribution as a precondition for peace. I could see how equality was represented in the opening exchanges in which all the performers shared the role of the percussion, but this sort of 'bolt-on' approach to music and philosophy/politics has never really grabbed me - especially when the politics are inserted as part of the compositional process. A work can take on a political/philosophical life of its own, certainly, but if nothing else it seems a very unattractive sort of politics that insists on an absolute meaning for a work of art. That's a loop the world has gone round once before, and it didn't yield great results then. Not that I would want to accuse Pagh-Paan of any kind of crude Socialist-Realist-like approach to compostion - I don't believe that's the case at all; but attempting to dictate something so subjective as politics through a medium so subjective as music seems to be doomed to failure.

Erik Oña's Alles Nahe werde fern ... was next. I quite liked this - I wouldn't say I was completely swept along by it, but it showed a lot of compositional control and was imaginatively, but coherently, phrased, which could not be said about too much of the chamber music I'd seen thus far. The work was built around a busy central line of deadened piano notes (grand and upright pianos), and the rest of the ensemble writing spun off this with fragments of melody. The title is from Goethe, via Borges who describes it as Goethe's apocryphal description of the world as we see it changing when we grow old - the feeling that 'everything that is close moves away' described Borges' own feeling of alienation resulting from his progressive blindness. The work, with its two interacting layers of piano core and fragmentary ensemble, captured some of the dislocation between self and environment suggested by the title; its nervous, agitated momentum was similarly evocative.

Oña is the Thürmchen's conductor, and another of their number, cellist Caspar Johannes Walter is the composer of the next piece, Fünf Ohren. His programme notes for the piece give the audience nothing to go on, apart from a text in German, but his biography confesses an interest in music theatre. In this work the theatre, such as it is, is limited to the soprano soloist ringing a wine glass, and her vocal production. In the end, Walter's work, for me, falls amongst those two-a-penny vocal works these days based on a Beckettian idea of the inherent difficulty in articulation. It's an old idea now, and few people have pulled it off with any great wit or verve.

No doubts about Kulenty's work, though. This simply wasn't very good. It's scored for piano and two wind instruments - today these were flute and bass clarinet - so it is very curious to see in the programme notes that the piece was built on the first 16 harmonics of the A string. But at least it had the promise of spectralism. Except that the whole point of spectral music, and composing using precise harmonics (and when you're trying to reach the 16th harmonic you have to be pretty precise), is that you are working outside the boundaries of the usual 12-note chromatic scale. With a proud equally-tempered instrument like a piano at the certain of your work, you might as well throw away any idea of working with the harmonic series - pianos simply aren't built like that. Thus, although the work is built around clangerous resonances, the equal temperament robs them of all interest and surprise. They just become straightforward chords that we can all make for ourselves. What's more, I fear that Kulenty herself lacks the compositional skill to make her moves anything but clumsy and predictable. This was not a good piece.

Salvatore Sciarrino's Due smarrimenti had the best/worst programme note of the lot, and ditched talking about the piece altogether in favour of a story about Rilke losing some letters in the Italian postal service. The piece itself, like Walter's, followed well-trodden themes of existential angst, but did so with far greater daring - in the second movement the soprano was limited, Feldman-like, to recycling the same three or four notes. Overall Sciarrino's strategy worked, and I will be listening to this piece again to try to make some sense of it.

Not for the first, or last time, the final piece in the concert was the best. I had been looking forward to this anyway - the notes foretold an intricate gothic-horror nightmare - and it largely lived up to them. To quote:

The listener enters the piece as though a door is suddenly flung open and he finds himself surrounded by a swarm of sentient acoustical beings, each moving forward at greater or lesser speed depending on the length of its legs. Pandemonium reigns supreme. Each instrument has its own gait, and the sum total of these 'sounds in forward motion' is an impenetrably dense rhythmic mass of reiterative figures.
The score includes organic instructions - whinnying horses and galloping dogs - and towards the end we are told that "the ear ... discovers that the beings are busily communicating with each other". This is a paranoid horror fantasy of the sort that has motivated so much of Ligeti's career to date (as a child he had a recurring dream of a room full of cobwebs, in which were trapped insects and other objects. When one part moved, the whole mass of webs shifted and shook in sympathy), and is a wonderfully evocative image to bring to the piece (the note's writer Frank Hilberg has to take a great deal of credit at this point), summarising both soundworld and compositional method in language that is informative but approachable. In the end, I was disappointed that the soundworld wasn't as dry and scuttling as I had expected, but it was still a very fine piece.

To come in Part V: a dodgy light show, a mass protest, some excellent video, and Tavener, Harvey, Zawadzka-Golosz, Jurgutis, Gubaidulina, and van der Aa.

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