Prom 45: Edgard Varèse and Jonathan Harvey

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov

Royal Albert Hall, 22 August 20084 stars

Jonathan HarveyStanding in the hall before tonight's concert, I overheard an usher warn two prospective concert-goers who had wandered in – 'Tonight's music will actually be all electronic music' – to which both frowned, before wandering back out of the building.

For those of us who stayed on to witness the concert, this attribute of its programme was more an appealing one than repellent. There was a good attendance on the night considering the 'unorthodox' programme on offer, and precisely this programme was the likely draw of those attending. A wide and rewarding variety of music was presented, matching the contemporary electro-acoustic work of Jonathan Harvey with two pioneering pieces by Edgard Varèse, Poème électronique and Déserts. The rare chance to hear these works resound through the cavernous space of the Albert Hall was an exiting proposition, and one not to be overlooked by anyone with an interest in contemporary composition.

In his pre-concert talk with Andrew McGregor, Harvey spoke of his interest in the potential for 'strangeness' in musical compositions, a potential harvested by the technological manipulation of sound that has become a powerful resource of the contemporary composer. Such power over sound has always been someway the case, but with composers now having access to sophisticated technological means by which to transform acoustic sound, this aspect has now come to the fore. The speeding up and slowing down of time, the telescoping of pitch into rhythm, and the melding of harmony with timbre, all explore the innate qualities of music in a new and exciting way. While Harvey shares this interest with the French spectral music that has taken it as its theme, he expresses the concern through a more characteristically British adherence to mid-twentieth century avant-garde atonalism.

The first piece performed tonight brings these two currents of contemporary composition together in a solo for piano: Tombeau de Messiaen, a short memorial to the composer Harvey in his programme note referred to as having been a 'protospectralist'. The electronic aspect of this piece is a tape part complementing the live, tempered piano with synthesized piano sounds drawn from twelve separate harmonic series – the resultant brew bringing forth quarter-note and eighth-note distortions to that sound-palette the typical concert-goer's ear is attuned to. Tonight's young pianist, Cédric Tiberghien, delved head-long into the work without restraint and seemed to relish its technical challenge, unproblematically playing along with the imposing tape part. Though the acoustics of the hall made the overall sound less clear than would be ideal, the piano writing heard issuing forth recalled the Messiaen of Vingt Regards – descending chromatic lines in short phrases acting in counterpoint with quick upward glissandi, occasional modal inflections, all watched over by an electronically relayed cousin, completing and cutting off the acoustic movements. The piece climaxed in a build-up of electronic tape sounds, combing to create a weird vocalistic hectoring before receding back and allowing the solo piano to finish. At the piece's end Tiberghien took his applause, and acknowledged Harvey at the helm of the sound desk at the back of the hall with his assistant Gilbert Nouno. It was interesting throughout Harvey's works on the night to watch the composer and Nouno layering and guiding the sound's emanation throughout the auditorium.

Cédric TiberghienFor the next piece the stage filled up, as solo piano turned into an orchestra with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's entry. Concluding this first part of the concert was Messiaen's Concert à quatre, a work completed after the composer's death by Yvonne Loriod in consultation with Heinz Holliger and George Benjamin. Like another late work by the composer, Une Sourire, this work offers nothing of much interest to a listener already familiar with Messiaen – lush modal string lines, percussion birdsong, blocks of brass harmony. The BBC SSO gave an adept performance and conveyed the frieze of the piece well, the same going for the four soloists: Tiberghien on piano, Emily Beynon on flute, Alexei Ogrintchouk on oboe, and Danjulo Ishizaka on cello – whose dialogue throughout was articulate and nuanced, and vibrant in interchange with their conductor, Ilan Volkov. The combined performance of all and the pleasure of their execution made the most of a slightly insipid work, the fourth movement of which was the best. Volkov's conducting was assured and played the hall's acoustics to an optimum, allowing lingering resonance between sections to be swallowed up by the space before proceeding, facilitating good definition of the work's form and the orchestra's sections.

The second part of the concert was given over to two works by Jonathan Harvey, the first of which, Mortuos plango, vivos voco for eight-channel tape, was previously heard at the Royal Albert Hall in 1985. This work is one that then served to signal Harvey as an important composer on the contemporary scene, exploring the juncture between live and synthesised sound; it also, not less significantly, showed him as a composer willing to straddle the Anglo-French division in order to utilise the facilities available at the sound research centre of IRCAM in Paris. The work itself is based on the sound of the largest bell in Winchester Cathedral, synthesized and mixed with the sound of Harvey's son Dominic, who was a chorister there at the time of composition. The sampled sound of the bell and the extrapolation of its complex overtone structure provide the harmonic basis for the piece, the boy's voice winding through and echoing the bell's sonority, all the sounds rendered transitive and transforming into each other. The clamour produced in the hall impressed a ritualistic aspect on the concert-hall environment, its inhabitants frozen in time to the boy's voices and bell-tolls, the sounds shifting through the hall and expressing its massive space by their movement, orienting the listener towards the depth of its different spaces. The piece ended plaintively, with an aspect of choral music, one issuing from a cathedral itself rather than musicians within it – the effect succeeding towards Harvey's description of fostering the strange in musical composition.

Ilan VolkovThe second piece was a world premiere: Speakings for orchestra and live electronics, co-commissioned by the BBC with IRCAM-Centre Pompidou and Radio France. This work, the last composed by Harvey for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as its Composer-in-Association, fixed attention back again on the orchestra. The sounds of a handful of players who were close-mic'd, and the orchestra mic'd up in sections, were manipulated in real time by Harvey and Nouno at the sound desk. This sound material was fed at times through an audio template taken from speech-pattern samples, so that an effect was given in places of the solo instruments – particularly the trombone and oboe – engaging in a weird, hybrid type of musical 'speech', the only frequencies being expressed from these instruments being those they shared with the given speech sample template, the timbre of the instrument thereby articulating the speech. Despite this interesting premise the piece as a whole failed to impress, a certain amount of which was due to its formal shortcomings and a certain amount to the muddy acoustics of the hall, which didn't allow close discernment of the timbral manipulations occurring.

After the second interval something of a parallel was offered of the previous section. Here again were two pieces, the first, shorter piece electro-acoustic and the second, longer, mixing orchestra with electronic sound. This time the composer of both was Varèse, and the sounds a lot earlier in historical genesis. The audience had thinned a little by the time Poème électronique struck up with a deep dark tolling of bells, another echo and parallel from the previous concert section. The sound-world of this piece sounded suitably massive here, filling up the hall and thriving in its space; to the halted and frozen presence of the audience it presented another time, a voice – similar to that one aimed towards in Harvey's second piece – bringing forth its own time. The idea of this composition having the imagistic, transportive and disruptive quality of a poem was apparent in its booming and anonymous voice, to which all was subdued, by silence and slow time presenting a frieze of an attendance brought to rapt halt, the tape's depth and mix of electronic and concrète sonority making all present unmoving. Once ended, the sound of piano and orchestral forces was conveyed different to our ears from the previous ten minutes of electro-acoustic expansiveness, the players entering for the night's closing piece – Déserts for winds, percussion and tape, which provided a suitable climax to the concert. The opening, mounted-up chords, their bright sounds seeping into each other, served to remind how radical and brilliant Varèse's compositional imagination had been, in terms of the mechanics of sound sources, the means towards producing music and in terms of harmony, and the use of ensemble forces. The chords sounded massive and as if announcing a new and different harmony, and they unmistakably recalled their having been taken up later in the century by composers like Murail and Grisey.

VareseThis music is one certainly composed to be heard live, and the acoustics of the Albert Hall did it justice and brought it out to its most intense potential, along with the brilliant and precise playing of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra players. Volkov out front, conducting at a little distance from the performers, guided the work onward and joined the sections together seamlessly, leaving no time-gap between the ensemble and electronic interpolation. He was particularly impressive in bring out the ensemble dynamics of the piece – the contrast between loud, brash sections and quiet, crystalline ones pronounced and effective. The effect was of a compositional voice alternately using different timbral means for its expression, between tape and acoustics conducting an inner dialogue with itself and its means. Varèse's genius was to make familiar timbral resources sound alien and strange and to stand out in vivid profile, rehumanising them from their mechanical orchestral usage, automated by a classical music tradition and its monotonous desire for the familiar. This piece still sounded completely fresh on the night, standing out as something of an injunction; certainly Harvey's Speakings, with which it was paralleled on the night's programme, paled in comparison with its brutal grandeur, and its explorations of the instrumental ensemble along with the inner workings of sound are something to which we should always welcome return. One thing that may be considered for future Proms programming is the presentation of French or German Spectral music to Proms concert-goers.

By Liam Cagney

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