Webern and the Second Viennese School @ the Queen Elizabeth Hall

29 January 2013

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the latest in the year-long Rest Is Noise festival. These early weeks are focusing on the composers of the Second Viennese School ie Schoenberg the father and Berg and Webern his students, who began to write their influential works in the years just before the Great War. If Schoenberg is the transitional figure who picks up late Romantic chromaticism and moves into the territory of pure atonality, his students began at that position and explored its ramifications. Berg was able to use atonality to build surprisingly large structures including his brilliant Violin Concerto and even two operas, ‘Wozzeck’ and ‘Lulu’. Webern, on the other hand, is famous in musical history for developing the ideas of atonality and serialism into works of astonishing compression and brevity. Many of his works are only a minute long, with no melody, no harmony, just the rigour of his mathematical application of the method of serialism.

I remember first learning about this and expecting the resulting music to be harsh and dissonant – and so being astonished to encounter the precise, crystalline structures of these micro-pieces, sharp and unearthly like stars in a cold sky.

The performance was by the London Sinfonietta with Baldur Brönnimann conductor, Sarah Gabriel soprano and Lightmap video design. Sarah’s singing was impassioned. She wore a stunning strapless dress in the first half, and another black velvet number in part two. The video was a continual projection in the background of b&w footage of pre-War Vienna and images of the composers, along with texts in German and English of the songs, quotes from the composers including one from Webern from which one word at a time slowly faded as the music played.

Videos at classical concerts seem to be the fashion – there was a video at Gavin Bryars’s Titanic, the film of Koyaanisqatsi at the Barbican, and during the other weekend’s Pierrot Lunaire at the Festival Hall they projected a loop of b&w images of the century.

It was interesting to hear Schoenberg’s orchestral pieces for the second time in a fortnight, in a different and more edgy arrangement. But both Berg and Schoenberg seem normal next to the other worldly miniaturism of Webern. No-one else has ever written so intensely. Every note is vital. In a post-concert panel discussion the conductor, Baldur Brönnimann, said it’s tricky to conduct because everything you do spoils it, it has such Platonic purity.

Discussion panel This after-concert panel was excellent, including an academic expert on Webern, Baldur the conductor, Peter the viola player and Netia Jones who produced the video. They all had interesting things to say. The viola player said the music is so intense because behind every phrase, behind every pair of notes, is the entire German tradition. The academic pointed out that Webern saw himself as a Romantic – his inspiration came from an obsessive worship of Nature and high mountains as well as mourning for his dead mother. In other words, as Baldur emphasises, the 1950s and 60s did Webern a disservice by making him the messiah of the new religion of atonality, performing his music as mathematically strict and antiseptic. Now, 50 years later, he said, we can see the music more fully, stripped of 60s ideology, as deriving directly from its Romantic German antecedents in its concern with expressivity, albeit taken to unprecedented heights.

My favourite work was the three little pieces for cello. It makes so much difference to see these works performed live. The drama and intensity of real performers producing these extraordinary sounds really hit you as they can’t on a recording.

Anton Webern: 3 Lieder
Arnold Schoenberg: 5 Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Anton Webern: 6 Pieces for orchestra, Op.6
Anton Webern: 5 Pieces for small orchestra, Op.10
Anton Webern: 3 Volkstexte (Three Traditional Rhymes) for soprano & ensemble, Op.17
Anton Webern: Symphony, Op.21
Alban Berg: 4 Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op.5
Anton Webern: 3 Little Pieces for cello & piano, Op.11
Anton Webern: Concerto for 9 instruments, Op.24

Black and white photo of Anton Webern

Anton Webern (1883-1945) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Conlon Nancarrow weekend @ the South Bank

22 April 2012

To the South Bank for part one of their Conlon Nancarrow weekend. An American ‘maverick’, Nancarrow (b1912), became a communist, fought in the Spanish Civil War, was invalided home where he was harassed for his beliefs and found no taste for his difficult music, and so exiled himself to Mexico, where he lived and worked till his death in 1997.

Nancarrow pioneered a revolutionary approach to combining tempos, ie having multiple ‘melodies’ or sequences of notes playing simultaneously, creating works so fiendishly complex no human being could play them; instead, he laboriously punched out the music, by hand, hole by hole, into paper rolls for player pianos. Each piece typically took a year to create and lasts 2 or 3 minutes. 50 pieces in all. Even among the avant-garde his work only became known in the 1980s.

This weekend of events has been two years in the making, most of which involved tracking down the kind of player piano he used, restoring it and his tattered piano rolls, standing it on the stage of the Purcell Room, and having two player piano experts take turns loading each roll and briefly introducing each piece. Plus an opening lecture by people who knew and championed his work, an hour-long biographical film, and an evening concert in the QEH of orchestrated versions.

There’s no doubt it’s a hard listen, but sometimes you can make out the structure; other times enjoy the ‘Nancarrow Lick’, the mad glissandi playing swoops of notes impossible for the human hand; or the ‘swarm’ effect of hundreds of notes being played nearly simultaneously. Junior noticed that many of them end with a cheeky flourish. Speakers on the film testified he was a warm and charming man, and the jokiness of some of the pieces reflected his sense of humour. But he wanted to avoid warmth or sentiment; he adapted his player pianos to give them a brighter, harsher sound.

Canon X (Study 21) is relatively easy to understand: the ‘right hand’ starts playing a series of notes very fast, the ‘left hand’ a series very slow; and then they take about 3 minutes to reverse their speeds, thus crossing over half way through, hence Canon X.

Conlon Nancarrow, Study for Player Piano No. 21 (Canon X) on YouTube

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