Monday, 30 January 2012

Sound in time and space

Alte Schmiede, 28/01/2012

Ensemble Polysono: Christine Simolka (soprana), Ursula Seiler Kombaratov (flute/piccolo),  Igor Kombaratov (clarinet), Markus Stolz (cello), René Wohlhauser (piano, baritone, conductor)

Nono: ‘Djamila Boupachà’ for soprano solo (1962)
Beat Furrer: Invocation III for soprano and flute (2004)
René Wohlhauser: Die Auflösung der Zeit in Raum, version for clarinet, cello and piano (2000-01/2011) EA
Xenakis: Kottos for solo cello (1977)
Ursula Seiler Kombaratov: Les deux, duo for flute/piccolo and B flat clarinet (2010) EA
René Wohlhauser: Marakra Code Ø for baritone solo and Code 2 for soprano, baritone, flute, clarinet, cello, piano and percussion (2011) EA

EA = Austrian premiere

‘Klang in Zeit und Raum’ is the title of the European tour the Ensemble Polysono is currently making with this programme, and in other venues the lofty aims of works like René Wohlhauser’s Die Auflösung der Zeit in Raum may stand more of a chance than in the cramped conditions and dry acoustic of the Alte Schmiede. That said, I’ve heard ensembles that overcame the venue’s limitations to offer more penetrating studies into the spatiality of sound than Wohlhauser’s ragtag group of musicians.

Polysono’s kookiness is endearing up to a point: the programme designed on MS Publisher 96, cellist Markus Stolz’s scarlet red khakis and bow tie, the village hall music club atmosphere, and Wohlhauser’s innocent foibles and eccentricities. It all flies in the face of how this music is usually presented and only the humourless would scorn its unconventionality. Contemporary music in general desperately needs to be relieved of its ‘not to be tried at home’ image. (Schubert sits alongside Brice Pauset on my piano at the moment.) And the deal with the Alte Schmiede is that you occasionally get musicians whose first calling is perhaps not as performers (Wohlhauser is a sinecured composer and teacher).

But when the performances fail to rise above a bunch of people making a well-intentioned fist of things, one thinks longingly of more qualified ensembles on the fringes of the new music establishment (Vienna’s Pierrot Lunaire Ensemble immediately springs to mind). In Xenakis’s Kottos cellist Markus Stolz brought a suitably glassy sound to the glissandi and harmonics but lacked the technique to deliver the absolute precision the high passages require. ‘A beautiful sound should be avoided,’ writes Xenakis, though as with Mahler this is not an instruction to be taken so literally. Ursula Seiler Kombaratov’s duet for flute/piccolo and clarinet, played by the composer, sensibly avoided unrealistic technical demands, though I found the piece inconsequential. Of the two Wohlhauser works it feels almost cruel to write that the first was musically thin and the second unintentionally hilarious, when so much loving care and effort went into their production. The only moment in Die Auflösung der Zeit in Raum that passed for temporal suspension came at the very end, as Markus Stolz crept up the fingerboard, pushing the tone to its limits. He did well to avoid scratchiness here; bow contact was good and tone surprisingly full. Marakra Code Ø and Code 2 form their texts from codes of Wohlhauser’s own devising which, if he wants them to be taken seriously, would be best left to a performer not quite so inviting of ridicule. It was hard keeping a straight face as he yodelled things like ‘gah-scha so ragadiboo!’ (soprano Christine Simolka did a much better job of selling this gibberish). A mash-up of Webern, Messiaen and his former teacher Brian Ferneyhough appears to be Wohlhauser’s natural musical style and though the purely instrumental parts of the piece promised to get interesting, it was too stuffed with aural clutter – examples are too numerous to list but include the rubbing of stones – to maintain focus.

Beat Furrer’s Invocation III, set to an anonymous 16th-century Spanish text, has the opposite problem: promising musical material stretched out too thinly and starved of development. Furrer also beats you over the head with the words he considers to be of import within his simplistic reading of the text (that the endless repetition eventually only dulls one's senses is not something I suspect he intended). Soprano Christine Simolka gave as persuasive a performance as this piece is likely to get, but the effort she made to blend with flutist Ursula Seiler Kombaratov’s breathy, lisped tone wasn't really reciprocated. The only unhampered performance of the evening was left to Simolka, who sang Nono’s haunting solo song ‘Djamila Boupachà’ (from Canti di vita d’amore) with pure tone, good legato and excellent diminuendo at the top of her register.

Image credit: Martin Spiess

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