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Monday, 22 February 2016

The last Prelude and Fugue, and onwards : Reich, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bach celebrate (with) Louis #Andriessen

A review of Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court for / with Louis #Andriessen (Part I)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

18 February

This is the first part of a review of a concert given by Britten Sinfonia under Andrew Gourlay (and with soprano Allison Bell), as part of a BBC Louis Andriessen festival at The Barbican Centre, presented by Tom Service at Milton Court on Saturday 13 February at 3.00 p.m.

Soprano Allison Bell sang in #Andriessen's Dances (1991), the only work in Part II of the concert (which is reviewed here)

Programme (Part I) :

1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) (arr. Louis Andriessen (1936-)) ~ Prelude No. 24

2. Bach (arr. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), compl. Andriessen) ~ Prelude and Fugue No. 24

3. Stravinksy ~ Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914)

4. Steve Reich (1936-) ~ Duet (1993)

5. Andriessen (arr. strings, Marijn van Prooijen) ~ Miserere (2007, arr. 2015)

It has to be said that, even with the benefit (and delight) of having heard Peter Donohoe (@PeterHDonohoe) play Book I of Das wohltemperierte Klavier entire (at The Stables at Wavendon, Milton Keynes (@StablesMK)), there are still pairs of Preludes and Fugues that one feels that one is less confident of knowing well¹ :

So it is that, although recordings of Book I abound (and are listened to, e.g. by Glenn Gould, András Schiff, Richard Egarr, Keith Jarrett, etc.), those Preludes and Fugues from around No. 19 onwards never quite get as much attention / exposure as they might, or should – from that personal perspective, therefore, hearing the original work first might have helped one listen out better for what first Andriessen, then Stravinsky, had done to Bach's structures and textures…

Bach (arr. string quartet, Andriessen) ~ Prelude No. 24 in B Minor, BWV 869, Das wohltemperierte Klavier (1722, arr. 2006)

1st violin, Jacqueline Shave ~ 2nd violin, Miranda Dale ~ Viola, Clare Finnimore ~ Cello, Caroline Dearnley

(1) In the part for cello, we apprehended serene, stately movement beneath that of the other strings, and, as we resumed da capo, there were moments of tenderness. When, later, the writing for cello could be perceived to have a step-wise character, the other string-parts had a fluidity to them, and there was an excitement to the music’s build and fall.

Bach (arr. strings, Stravinsky, compl. Andriessen) ~ Prelude and Fugue No. 24 (1722, arr. 1969)

(2) A little as when Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) played Mahler’s arrangement, for chamber string orchestra, of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor (‘Death and The Maiden’), D. 810, there was not an impression of a much fuller sound, though it appeared capable of being more sweeping in its effect, and gave a ‘larger’ crescendo.

In this version, the sadness came out in the theme that Bach takes for a fugal subject : its intensity was not lessened by a group of instruments playing the long opening trill (the Prelude also contains trills). Its motifs, and the use of falling intervals against contrary motion in the other parts, are suggestive of mourning, and, as the culmination of Bach’s educational enterprise (we know that, in class, he used playing it through as one), it is almost necessarily far removed from the Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 846, with which Book I begins.

As to the impression given, especially of the Fugue, by making the arrangement, one factor has been mentioned above (i.e. the relative unfamiliarity of items towards the end of Book I), but, even compared with Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080 (which is still sometimes thought recondite), does this material seems harder to shape ?

Stravinksy ~ Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914²)

The quartet was made up exactly as for the first piece in the concert :
Jacqueline Shave and Miranda Dale, Clare Finnimore, and Caroline Dearnley

The work had no titles for the movements until 1928, when, alongside his Étude pour pianola, Stravinsky arranged them for orchestra (under the title Quatre études), and they became called, respectively, Danse, Eccentrique, and Cantique : the stridency of the first of these was characterized by vigorous pizzicato notes on cello (Dearnley), and an emphatic part for first violin (Shave), with occasional prominent strokes from second violin (Dale).

Stravinsky opened the second Piece by employing a heavily accented and slurred sound (as of his notion of an eccentric³ ?), but then there was an abrupt change of tone and mood, more extreme, in its rhythmic freedom and energy, than even much of Bartók’s writing for string quartet. When the initial material resumed, there was less jollity about it, and less slurring.

The last Piece was very different again – and one wonders what, in arranging it for large orchestra, Stravinsky might have changed. It began with a few gestures, which conjured to mind, perhaps, a waste space, before developing into what resembled a hymn (or someone praying).

Yet we were to keep reverting to those more stark gestures, as if to a distillation of his Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) from the previous year – and a work of whose influence on him Louis Andriessen was later to tell. Towards the end, the part for lead violin had a fugue-like subject, and, amidst these unlikely fragments, to the credit of the Sinfonia’s string-players (as well as of the composer), there was warmth.

Appreciative of a sensitive performance (and it could be that this felt like the first substantive piece ?), the audience at Milton Court called the players back for applause.

Reich ~ Duet (1993)

When they were leaving the concert-hall after the first part of the concert, one heard a couple of men talking in a way that showed that they did not realize that they had already heard Reich’s Duet.

Even for those who did not have the programme, as maybe they also did not, it was clear enough, not just because Tom Service (@tomservice), for the BBC (@BBCRadio3), had announced, and talked about the pieces in, the running-order of the Louis #Andriessen Immersion Day concert (through to the composer’s own Miserere) : for one thing, it was not as if it did not, in aural terms, resemble Steve Reich's style, but, for another, one imagines that (as with Music for 18 Musicians) he would have specified where on the stage, and so in visual terms, the duo should be – the familiar Sinfonia violinists Jacqueline Shave (leader) and Miranda Dale (principal second violin) had been facing each other across the performance-space.

This was a completely other sound-world from that of Stravinsky (as heard from 1914), with its use of echo / delay, i.e. in the person and playing of the performers, and sustained notes. Reich then added in patterning, in the form of rhythms from the double-bass (Roger Linley) and, for this piece, a third cellist (Rowena Calvert), deploying a flat bow to tap the strings.

For those who had been listening to Ligeti recently (because of Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch 2), utterly different from the effect that he sought – open sounds, but with dissonance introduced, and the interaction of the parts of Reich’s duetting pair of violins, conspiring to throw the equilibrium off balance. With a light, open texture, the Sinfonia brought the work to a close.

Andriessen (arr. Marijn van Prooijen) ~ Miserere (2007, arr. 2015)

Interviewed by Tom Service, Louis Andriessen told us (wanting, as he said, to avoid giving us a lecture’s worth on it, as he had formally done elsewhere recently) that he had written Miserere for Amsterdam Sinfonietta as a requiem - as at, and for the fact of, their final concert : he had done so at a time when funding for the arts had been in the hands of people whom he described as ‘gangsters’, and this ensemble (and four others ?) had lost its grant.

However, another and happier aspect to its genesis, at the outset, had been a simple figure, written as a birthday present for his sister, and which #Andriessen said that even he could play on piano. The work had originally been written for string quartet, and Andriessen approved of the present arrangement (for string orchestra), which had been made by the Sinfonietta’s bassist, Marijn van Prooijen.

Alas, it had been intended that the review-notes, on which the comments that follow are based, would be amplified, with the piece (fresh) in one’s memory : nothing wrong with the intention as such, as an effort (as with Andriessen’s Dances, in the second half) to detach oneself from the activity of formulating immediate and specific responses, and, rather, making a comment on the overall impression⁴...

At first, the work fell into sections, with contrasts occurring between the sections. Then, as Andriessen had said to Service by way of an introduction to his composition, it becomes more ‘disquieting’, and less ‘conventional’, which we heard as the texture felt itself to be twisted (or tortured ?). When that feeling did subside, there was a quality of expansiveness to the writing, which was a little reminiscent of such moods in Copland (or Sibelius ?) – till, at the end, it had richness, as of Britten.

Part II of the concert is reviewed here


¹ As, say, with a concert that includes complete Rachmaninov’s Preludes, Op. 23, nothing can alter the fact that some are celebrated (e.g. No. 5 in G Minor, marked Alla marcia), and so one less easily relates to their neighbours, heard in between.

² Although it was completed in 1914, it appears that it was not published until 1922 (and Stravinsky had revised it in 1918).

³ Assuming that Stravinsky did not conceive of that description after the fact, although Book II of Claude Debussy’s Préludes had first been performed in London in 1913, of which No. 6 (L. 123 / 6) is marked Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cakewalk, and sub-titled (at the end of the piece) Général Lavine – eccentric.

If, of course, it had happened - whereas, it had then seemed natural, just after hearing Allison Bell (@bellAsoprano) sing, to write up notes for the second half.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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