Proms 39: Greenwood, Stravinsky, and excerpts from Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus

Oke, Rice, Walker, Stephany, McFadden, BBC SO/Brabbins

Royal Albert Hall, 17 August 2009 4.5 stars

Jonny Greenwood by Jason EvansStanding room only in Prom 39, on stage at least. For Jonny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver, written by the Radiohead guitarist and composer during his stint as associate composer with the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2005 (and revised for insertion into his much-praised score for There Will be Blood in 2007), the fifty-plus string players of the BBC SO are required to stay on their feet throughout.

Despite this superficial variety, and indeed despite the apparent vitality the music bore in its starring role on film, Popcorn Superhet Receiver is an unutterably dull piece, a student piece composed in earnest by someone who has listened to antiquated modernist scores and taken them for the height of daring. Over almost twenty minutes the mass of strings give off richly scored chords and, well, that's pretty much it. Attempts at some sort of textural or colouristic modulation were seldom, and apart from a vaguely propulsive passage in which each player strums their instrument as if it were a guitar (with the mesh of muted strings, lattice figuration, and molten bass working very well), movement is elusive.

But the material is simply not interesting enough to sustain such surface homogeneity. Transitions are not even attempted — the material simply stops before moving into a new sonority — and proportions are sorely miscued. As much as I love Greenwood and his band, and as much as I believe that what he is trying to do should be praised, I still think this nothing of a piece underscores the importance of learning your craft and attaining a personal compositional voice before entering into the public world of performance.

The players stayed standing for the following Apollo. I was initially unsure if such a large grouping of strings (all the players from the Greenwood remained for the Stravinsky) would suit the limpid textures and counterpoint of this most poised and elegant of scores, and some initial unevenness in the phrasing seemed ominous. But Martyn Brabbins was on fine form (he had been committed, in vain, in the first work), and he duly guided the players towards a sharply focused reading. The extra heft of the ensemble meant that the more vigorous, forthright sections, such as Terpsichore’s Variation or the Apotheosis, were especially stunning, and the neatness of the playing elsewhere, in the Pas de deux for instance, lent a sweet elan to the sound.

The second half was an entirely different proposition, almost shockingly so. Bravely and ludicrously the central 'Arches' section from Birtwistle's 1986 opera The Mask of Orpheus — complete with huge orchestra, solo singers, chorus, electronics and sound projectionist, props, and recorded voice — was given to a stunned Royal Albert Hall. The myth of Orpheus has proved to be one of the enduring tropes in Birtwistle's career, it being the source for example of his most recent music theatre work The Corridor in addition to other works, but it was in this opera that it received its most fulsome and most enigmatic treatment. The work was praised on its opening as being seminal, as being perhaps a jumping off point for opera in the late-twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries, and indeed so it has proved. Its approach, deeply metaphysical and poetical in form, in text, in style, and in sound, can be understood to be the foundation of many recent works, amongst them Brian Ferneyhough's 'thought opera' (a description as apt for the present work) Shadowtime, Liza Lim's The Navigator, Olga Neuwirth's Lost Highway, and many others.

Alan OkeOrpheus plays fast and loose with the usual singularities of character, time, place, and sense, such that each of the main personalities of the play are enacted by three singer/actors; Orpheus, for instance, is embodied in Orpheus Man, Orpheus Myth, and Orpheus Hero. Dreams, visions, remembrances, meetings, all slide in and out of each other. The vision of the 17 Arches, each representing a code of being, or an element of knowledge, is richly allusive and elusive. In the passage we witnessed, Orpheus journeys through those Arches into the Underworld, only to realised towards the close that he had in fact been dreaming, that the greater tragedy is not that he turned to gaze at Euridice, but that he had not even the opportunity of not doing so, and that perhaps his gift, his 'work', failed him.

If this description sounds confusing, then it is because the work itself is, and gloriously so. Along with the poetical vision of the librettist (many lines echo Bataille: 'Cliff-child. Excreta. Womb-spent visions to kill.') Peter Zinovieff, Birtwistle weaves his most stunning agglomeration of sounds. Full on cavalcades of percussion, screaming and shouting mic'd up voices (The Minotaur's angular arioso is comparatively lush compared to the line here), spectrally-rich washes of treated sounds, volcanic brass; the litany of sonic batteries are unremitting. Onslaughts of sound — all these elements together, but not in a loose way, in a breathtaking architecture of the sublime from an exceptional composer at his highest point of accomplishment — shuddered the venue. For once, the scattery acoustics did not matter. Those that remained in the audience (there were plenty of walkouts) were pinned to their seats by cavalcades of bewildering sounds each pockmarked by confusing events. Even the moments of sparseness, those paragraphs for instance when the electronics came to the fore to suggest a trembling aura of the mythic, those confusional elements actually uncovered and clarified by this work, held the hall like a forcefield.

The cast were uniformly superb. Alan Oke in the title role had a difficult task, but his acting was full of awestruck dignity, and his singing fulsome. Christine Rice was crisp and precise without being cold, and Anna Stephany sang with great firmness in the Euridice myth role. Andrew Slater and Thomas Walker were both solid and yet also elemental, whilst Claron McFadden as Hecate almost stole the show with her unfastened ferocity. The direction from Tim Hopkins made excellent use of the limited space available, even having singers move about the floor of the arena amongst the crowd at points. Brabbins, somehow, kept proceedings in check, filling them with the power of the sublime by alone retaining enough poise for others to swing on, but Birtwistle was the fulcrum on which it all turned. He inputted a world of ideas into piece, a world it is almost impossible to grasp the true profile of. This horrifying delirium plays in and out of sense in the most thrilling of ways. Hopefully the watching Greenwood was cognisant of and, perhaps, attentive to the many intricately worked out and inventively realised sonic and metaphysical layers that go into such an impression. When Birtwistle came on stage at the end, the ebullient audience gave off a flood of affection that made fools of those who had prematurely left the arena.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Jonny Greenwood by Jason Evans and Alan Oke

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