Monday, 19 April 2010

Varèse 360 at the RFH

The final concert - of three - of the complete works of Varèse at the South Bank was given by the National Youth Orchestra under Paul Daniel. It was a blazing concert, a high-torqued rock-hammering of dynamics and rhythm which showed Varèse's orchestral conflagrations of sound in their best possible light.

The showpiece was Amériques in, as Paul Daniel pointed out, its original 'extravagant' version with offstage brass and 'a section about 2/3rds through which sounds, dare I say it, almost impressionistic, like something out of Ravel'. Certainly with an orchestra in which almost every part has an extra desk this was an ideal opportunity to hear the original conceit. As in the rest of the concert, the orchestra played with astonishing ensemble and balance - I mean astonishing as, to look at, it seemed impossible that an ideal balance and unanimity of attack and roll could be achieved with such an enormous group, especially in such a rhythmically demanding score.

Yet, as it has become apparent over the weekend, Varèse wrote music that is best served by youthful, forward-thrusting dynamism. The untiring, elastic verve and surge of this performance seemed to bring life to the music where (in the first concert) the London Sinfonietta searched artfully just below its surface for something that probably isn't there. It is music of machinery, objectified sound. The opening could easily be mistaken for The Rite Of Spring but quickly abandons its organic, linear narrative for collaged, snatched visions of the city whirl.

Similarly, the first half saw the Kubrickian Arcana, a rapid series of feral-cosmic explosions that sits somewhere inbetween Amériques and the rhythmic rigour of the later Ionisations. The joy of this performance was realising that the hall was going to serve this music so well, also a great indicator for Amériques, duly fulfilled. Less successful were the visual designs of Cathy Boyd which were either under-rehearsed or simply ill-conceived. I'm quite easy on the subject of lighting and projection in these concerts, given Varèse's own interest in such a tie-in but they have to be done with some sense of integration and consistency through a work and it just didn't seem to come together here.

There were three other pieces in the concert. The first, another Chou Wen-chung reconstruction, Tuning Up, is a sort of spoof extrapolation of what that peculiar ritual prior to an orchestral concert proper hints at. It's a silly, Hoffnung-like cacophony but was performed with great character by the orchestra, seemingly with only intermittent direction from the leader, Michael Twaddle. I was terribly disappointed at myself half way through to catch sight of Paul Daniel conducting from a seat just in front of the cellos, as I wanted to believe the work's theatre. The second piece, beginning the second half was a setting of words by Anaïs Nin called Nocturnal, which - like Varèse's own approach to musical composition, is less about narrative and more about sonic exploration. The NYO were joined by some amplified basses from Laudibus (of the National Youth Choir) and the rather intrepid soprano Elizabeth Watts, who is called on to shriek and coo at the apogee and perigee of vocal possibility. The spasmodic nature of the music makes it as difficult as the demands of its dynamics and tessitura but Watts dispatched it with assurance - but, wisely, not nonchalance, given that Jane Manning, the high priestess of this esoteric Fach, was sitting in row C! The piece, like a handful of others in this comprehensive retrospective, isn't great and shows that Varèse was at his best when steering clear of the voice.

Though the concert had been about Amériques, Paul Daniel managed to sneak in a pertinently sentimental performance of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune as an encore. A brief word from the conductor beforehand suggested that this was the music that had galvanised Varèse to compose and the orchestra played with a stirring reverence that, interestingly, spoke most clearly of their own love for the music of Varèse that they had been preparing in the days prior to the concert. A terrific end to the weekend's overview of Varèse.

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