Visions and Utterances: Concert Review

An invaluable experience for Rebecca Saunders’ blistering new piece and George Walker’s fine Sinfonia No. 5

Visions and Utterances: Concert Review

Visions and Utterances: Mazzoli, Saunders, Bates, Walker. Nic HodgeS (piano); London Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, 30.03.2022 (CC)

Missy Mazzoli River Rouge Transfiguration (2013, UK premiere)

Rebecca Saunders to an utterance (2020, UK premiere)

Mason Bates Liquid Interface (2007, UK premiere)

George Walker Sinfonia No. 5, ‘Visions’ (2016, UK premiere)

It was almost like the Old Days of the 1980s: a programme comprising all contemporary music with no observable ‘sweetener’ to lighten the load. Good to see a healthy sized audience, therefore, for this variegated and eclectic programme. The evening marked the beginning sf a five-day Southbank Centre celebratio of new music called SoundState.

Probably best to start with easily the most impressive work on the programme Rebecca Saunders’ piano concerto, to an utterance. This is the second time I have encountered the work live: the Berlin premiere on September 9, 2021 at the Philharmonie, Berlin with Hodges again as soloist and the Lucerne Festival Contemporary Orchestra under the composer/conductor Enno Poppe was a defining experience (the actual World Premiere took place in Lucerne itself a little earlier). It was clear, in Berlin, that this is a major piano concerto; and, sharing programme space there with Webern (the Symphonie Op. 21 and the Variations, Op 30) and Sunders’ own percussion piece, Voice (2013/14) it seemed right at home.

Saunders wrote the piece for Nicolas Hodges, whose Herculean technique is called upon in full for what, in some ways, is a post-Lisztian piece; although some of the demands might seem closer to those of Sorabji’s output. To an utterance includes a cadenza which, again inking back to tradition, is improvised (and here Hodges, who has Saunders’ music in his bones, took the music to virtuosic extremes). If anything, this London performance was greater than the Berlin account. From the opening, grumbling, piano gestures, Saunders sets out her stall: uncompromising, determined. The work’s title, to an utterance, refers not just to the act of utterance itself, but also to an archaic saying that refers to excess, to take something beyond. And it is via this means that he music eventually exhausts itself, through an ’excess’ of utterance. So it is that he piano part hardly stops throughout. The orchestra (which includes accordion, piano and an array of percussion) reacts to, discusses, matches and itself seeks to exceed the piano’s gestures. The score carries an implicit contradiction within itself, in that it is almost impossibly carefully constructed and notated (down to quarter-tone French horn fingerings), and yet the piece succeeds via its sense of abandon. Z Totentanz-plus for our times, perhaps.

Much of Saunders’ material derives from glissandos (and their non-linear version, the cluster). We hear double glissandos but also delicate cascades – in effect, slowed down glissandos. In this London performance, more than in Berlin, one felt that many of the piano gestures could almost have an electronic nature, piano transcriptions of electronica perhaps found in Stockhausen. Throughout there exists a sense of danger, but also of anger, meaning the plateaux of stillness that do exist are undercut by tension.

Here's the World premiere in Lucerne:

... and here's the Berlin premiere:

Having heard the piece live twice and multiple times via the available YouTube performances, I have no doubt that to an utterance is destined to be one of the major works for piano and orchestra of this century. A bold claim, perhaps, but for all the work’s own seeming excess of utterance, it has become clear that not one note is wasted. Saunders seems to be able to hear exactly what she wants, and as a result the scoring is masterly. All credit to Gardner amd his musicians for giving such a committed performance. Tuning is everything in music such as this and it was clear the musicians were on razor-eared form. to an utterance is an unforgettable experience, and Hodges is its supreme interpreter (it was written with him in mind). The work has had to wait a while for its UK premiere; one hopes this is the first of many performances here.

Contemporary music means many things. And that spread of meaning can extend to works within the output of one composer, as George Walker’s catalogue attests. His Piano Sonatas (recently recorded on Bridge Records) are little masterpieces, and within the space of one disc demonstrate this variety. His Fifth Sinfonia, receiving its UK premiere here, has been recorded (on Albany, Great American Orchestral Music Volume 5)..The piece is, as Gardner pointed out in one of his spoken introductions, suffused with anger. Written in 2016, it exists in two versions, one with voices and one (the one heard on this occasion) without. It is a reaction to the murderous acts of a white supremacist in South Carolina. The musical canvas is taut, and cast over one single movement. Gardner presented the dissonant surface unapologetically, and therefore viscerally. There are influences of Americana here, most notably some Coplandesque passages on the strings, but they are held within the context of the  prevailing harmonic unrest. At times, the music seems to pulse from within, as if searching for its own heartbeat. Craggy and austere, this is a powerful statement; within a mere 17 minutes is contained a whole world of anguish, Bravo to Gardner for daring to end the concert on such a vehement note; this was uncomfortable, but decidedly bracing, listening. Interesting that Gardner brought out contrasts more than on the Albany recording (Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson), so there were moments when the music seemed to dance, almost in defiance. A wonderful close to the evening. Here is that performance on Albany with the Sinfonia Varsovia and Ian Hobson:

Which leaves two pieces. Missy Mazzoli’s River Rouge Transformation (2013) was the firtst piece heard in the evening .Mazzoli’s music has been championed by the likes of the excellent eighth blackbird (Stil Life with Avalanche) and.pianist Shai Wosner (Eberhardt Dreams of PIanos)  She is associated with an all-female indie-rock band Victoire. Her music, on the evidence of River Rouge Transformation, is a post-Minimalist soundscape with long-limbed string melodies thrown in for good measure. In a sense this is post-John Adams, but in another sense it’s there for those people who thought minimalism could not go any lower than John Adams. It lasts a mere ten minutes as against Saunders’ 28 (the piece that followed) - and yet it was the Mazzoli that had longeurs. River Rouge Transformation was influenced by the photographer Clarice Sheeler’s documentations of Detroit’s River Rouge Plant in 1927, and an image of that as a massive pipe organ formed the generating seed of Mazzoli’s piece. The composer states that ‘this is music about the transformation of grit and noise … into something massive, resonant and unexpected’. High ideals, imperfectly realised.

The remaining piece was Mason Bates’ four-movement Liquid Interface (interesting to note that Bates has himself written a piece called Red River). Using electronica in conjunction with live performance is an idea that bodes well, but if Mazzoli’s piece spoke of sub-John Adams, here we delve into sub-Michael Daugherty (composer of the super-vacuous Metropolis Symphony, based on the Superman icon). All credit again to the LPO, whose performance of the second movement ‘Scherzo Liquido’ was sonic quicksilver (the music seems to have hints of a post-Copland Rodeo about it). We also hear jazz and big band in the score before the quiet (albeit electronically-interrupted quiet) of the final ‘On the Wannsee’ (a lake in Berlin, creating a tenuous link with the Berlin-based Saunders, perhaps?).

A bit of a patchwork quilt of a concert overall, perhaps, but an invaluable experience for Rebecca Saunders’ blistering new piece and George Walker’s fine Sinfonia No. 5.

Linked below is the Hobson disc of performances of Walker's Sinfonia No. 5 (the disc presents both versions of the score, one orchestral - as heard in the concert - the other with voices):

George Walker Sinfonia 5 recording

Photo © Manuela Jans