Sunday, 22 January 2012

Matteo Cesari's avant-garde Zauberflöte

Alte Schmiede, 20/01/2012

Niccolò Castiglioni: Gymel for flute and piano (1960)
Fabio Nieder: Ein abendliches Glockenspiel (I) – deutsches Volkslied in Kanonform (2010)
Beat Furrer: Presto for flute and piano (1997)
Maurilio Cacciatore: IV Anfibio (2011) UA
Stefano Trevisi: Dark again / Still again for prepared piano and live electronics (2011) UA
Brian Ferneyhough: Sisyphus Redux for alto flute (2010) EA
Fabio Nieder: ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da kommt ein Engel her zu Dir’ for piano (2010/11) EA
Bruno Maderna: Honeyrêves for flute and piano (1963)

[UA = world premiere, EA = Austrian premiere]

Matteo Cesari, flute
Stefania Amisano, piano
Stefano Trevisi, live electronics and sound director

A good third of the programmes I hear in Vienna are purely contemporary and standards of performance can be impressively high, not least at the Alte Schmiede, probably the city’s foremost venue for avant-garde and experimental programming. Gerald Resch’s introduction to this concert – describing Bruno Maderna as a ‘Klassiker’ relative to the other names on the programme – observes commonplace practice at the Schmiede, throwing into sharp relief what the Konzerthaus and Musikverein can claim only a handful of times a year by virtue of the Berio Saal and Ensemble Kontrapunkte respectively. The Schmiede’s attraction to artists is no less diminished by its size and having heard enthusiastic reports from friends, Matteo Cesari is a musician I’ve wanted to hear for a while. Cesari is fast establishing a name for himself on the contemporary circuit – résumé highlights include numerous prizes, an upcoming Sciarrino release for Kairos and, if reported accurately, possibly the kindest words I’ve heard Michael Finnissy utter – and duly impressed, putting in a performance that would have made for a stand-out Wien Modern concert.

With every work on the programme an act of advocacy in a quite carefully specified way, Cesari yokes extraordinary technical ability to considerable study into and understanding of the repertoire he performs. This came across most strongly after the premiere of Maurilio Cacciatore’s Quarto anfibio for amplified flute, which almost didn’t happen due to technical difficulties, and though we had to wait some time for techie-for-the-night Stefano Trevisi to sort these out it became immediately apparent why going ahead without the microphone was so unthinkable: Cacciatore’s Amphibian is a tightly constructed piece in which flute, human voice and amplification (perceived as something quite distinctive) play equally significant roles. Vocal effects include groaning, spluttering and engine revving, and though the piece is frenzied – harmlessly rabid, really – there’s a tension of uncertainty that underpins its structure – are these voices independent or interdependent? – which Cacciatore leaves to the listener to puzzle over, rather than exploiting for dramatic effect. One sometimes wonders if amplifying or sampling instruments and playing with echoes hasn't become irreversibly debased by now, but Cacciatore’s amplified sound had something expressive to contribute and was cleverly integrated into a complex formal scheme.

Brian Ferneyhough’s Sisyphus Redux was a great deal calmer, if more winding and inscrutable at first, with little of Ferneyhough’s signature hyperarticulacy and musical lines more abstract than the ascent/descent trajectory the work’s title would appear to imply. I sensed the mask slipping around halfway through, exposing a characterful, lonesome voice sometimes poignant, at other times disquieting. I must admit to some bafflement as to what this could be understood as expressing, if something other than Sisyphean determination (Ferneyhough writes that ‘each line of music may be seen as a renewed attempt, by means of cunning strategems or subtly altered initial conditions, to complete the task imposed by Zeus,’ a description not always borne out musically). A second hearing is no doubt in order. If Ferneyhough has mellowed then Cesari didn’t seem too concerned with showing it. There was sensitivity shown to a couple of the more lyrical moments but tone and delivery remained calmly studied for the most part.

I can find little generous to say about the stock-in-trade clichés of Beat Furrer’s Presto and Stefano Trevisi’s Dark again / Still again. The programme notes describe Ferneyhough and Furrer as ‘icons’, though Furrer, who outside of this country overshadows Cerha, Neuwirth and many others, is overexposed and overrated. Furrer’s greatest weakness is development, and yet what little he has to say he says at great length, dulling the senses as when one listens to any bore holding forth, so it is perhaps some achievement that the grating stop-starts and haphazard ordering of Presto irritate so persistently, even if the whimsical tone of the piece is entirely vacuous. Cesari tried to salvage something from the cheap theatricality, bringing an intensity and seriousness that stretched Furrer’s anaemic material rather thinly. Despite similar effort expended by Stefania Amisano on Dark again / Still again, the experience was undone by a jargonistic programme note (‘a perceptive ambiguity is introduced as regards the continuous use of prepared instrumental materials that could be perceived as synthetic, and of live electronic digital signal processes that produce sounds that seem to be played by the pianist [...] ultimately induc[ing] the listener to withdraw from source-bonding and causal approach and to accordingly adopt an acousmatic type of hearing’), which belied a weary feeling of having heard this variation on the ontological deconstruction of music and sound piped many a time before, and more convincingly. Musically as well as conceptually, Trevisi’s materials were entirely derivative.

Fabio Nieder’s ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da kommt ein Engel her zu Dir’ is a slow-moving atmospheric study for solo piano which juxtaposes concise statements from the extremes of the piano, played thoughtfully, and with an fitting sense of suspended temporality, by Stefania Amisano. The piece develops out of Ein abendliches Glockenspiel (I) – deutsches Volkslied in Kanonform, a miniature which makes what the composer describes as a ‘hypercanon’ of German folksong ‘Abendstimme überall’. The song is traditionally sung as a canon, though, as Nieder wagers, rarely in nine parts. He also writes of the music resembling the winding down of a clock mechanism, which Amisano focused more attention on than the thickness of the polyphony. The only tonal work on the programme, studded with some B natural wrong note colouration that channelled Schnittke at his least ironic, this was a piece of simple, quiet beauty, reminiscent of the writing in Othmar Schoeck’s choral works.

The short piece Honeyrêves, so named after dedicatee Severino Gazzelloni (inverted as Onireves), became a self-referential touchstone in Maderna’s later output and Cesari was seemingly sensitive to this, looking forward to the light lyricism of the opening flute solo in Ausstrahlung and, in the serenity of his ending, to the way in which the textural clouds part in Aura. Niccolò Castiglioni’s madcap Gymel also had its stiller moments, though Cesari aimed effectively for a more introverted mood. Knowing the extremes of register that Castiglioni liked to use but not knowing this piece, I couldn’t anticipate when I would be pinned back to my seat; the aural assault came with a piercingly high note from Cesari, but placed as if defying Castiglioni’s fragmentary approach to form. Just one of the many moments of compelling artistry in this concert; I do hope somebody from Wien Modern was in attendance so that we might have Cesari and Amisano back later in the year.

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