Thursday, 1 April 2010

Niccolò Castiglioni Knussen London Sinfonietta Julian Anderson

Bombarded with the cliché that modern music isn't "emotional", people have learned to think in easy boxes, instead of really listening. (There's even humour in Schoenberg, whose favourite composer was Brahms.) Castiglioni is yet more proof that a capacity for wit lies in the mind!

Niccolò Castiglioni is uncompromisingly avant garde, but his music is so vivacious, it sparkles. It's a pity Alfred Brendel wasn't at last night's concert when Oliver Knussen conducted Castiglioni Revisted with the London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. Castiglioni (1932-1996) was a virtuoso pianist, incorporating the piano into most of his music. Brendel's known for his dry humour.. He's giving a talk at Aldeburgh in June about humour in classical music.

Oliver Knussen gets Castiglioni. The man who wrote Higglety Pigglety Pop! and Where the Wild Things Are has conducted Castiglioni many times, most recently in 2008. This concert was even better, showcasing some of Castiglioni's more ambitious works for chamber orchestra and voice.

Capriccio (1991) started with manic frenzy, the pianist (Ian Brown) playing so presto that it seemed the notes were jammed in the keys at the extreme right, straining to go further than the poor machine could cope with. Then suddenly Castiglioni shifts into calmer waters, lyrically beautiful bassoon and bass, before returning to a con brio finale, where all instruments frolic together. The piano, however, has the last word, Brown's hands crossing each other, playing even more gleefully than before.

In 1957, The Diaries of Anne Frank were still relatively "new", so Castiglioni's Elegia (in memoria di Anne Frank) feels immediate, and first person. He seems to enter the mind of the girl forced to communicate in silence, acutely observing small things because the wider situation is witheld from her.  So the soloist, Anu Komsi, sings sotto voce, without vibrato, and in snatches, her voice blending into the background. The instruments  play snatches, too, lines retreating almost before they're stated. Castiglioni explicitly credited Anton Webern's influence.Again, Castiglioni shows that fragmentation and stillness, key themes in 20th century music, can be extremely moving, if you make the effort to listen.

The quiet. thoughtful mood continues in Eine kleine Weinachtsmusik,(1959/60). This isn't "Christmassy" in the sense of vulgar commercial celebration. Rather it's contemplative rapture, played so quietly it's barely audible.  Like Messiaen, Castiglioni understood what Christmas meant. Again deep feeling, but understated, working on the listener's soul.

Così parlò Baldassare, (1980/1) is equally atmospheric. Anu Komsi sings solo, completely unsuppported, but has to traverse snatches of numerous styles. It's music as collage. You think you hear Galli-Curci trilling like a mad canary, then suddenly you hear a growl bluntly squeezed out from the lower lungs, then bombastic  declamation, and high pitched squeaks, as if Komsi's suddenly been pinched from behind.

It's dramatic, in the sense that multi-image frames in film are dramatic. It would make a fascinating movie. The more you identify, the better the kaleidoscope colours. Why Baldassare Castiglioni, the Renaissance writer? Were the two men related? The family was influential in Italian culture, and still thrive today. Perhaps Niccolò is writing an opera in miniature, a panorama of 800 years of Italian history. Maybe that's why the "pinch" is there after the bombast: Castiglioni wit at work.

The text for Terzina (1992/3) comes from Gerhard Tersteegen, a 17th century mystic. Gott ist ein Herzens-Gott, to reach him you sink your head into your heart like a child : Kleinheit, Reinheit, Einfaltswesen. underlined by Castiglioni with cymbals so muffled you can barely hear them. The opposite of what cymbals are supposed to do. In the depths of the soul time, place and worldly concerns with reach depths in the soul no storm can penetrate. Castiglioni builds silence into the music, each word separated by silence, like the tolling of an unheard bell.

Quickly (1994) is strikingly original. It comprised 23 aphoristic Variations. It's a whirlwind..Each Variation is distinctive and witty: a manic woodwind quartet is at its heart, the theme taken up by other groups, which include celesta, harp, harpsichord, harp, glockenspiel and of course piano. Eleven violins enter as individuals, combining in a merry dance punctuated by tubular bells, an unusual combination of ultra high strings and low-resonance metal. The woodwind quartet disguises itself in different forms. At one stage the piccolo player (Frank Nolan) pipes a simple melody, like a child's toy pipe. Seriously well written music, but not serious in portent. It must be exhilarating to play. Knussen knows that the London Sinfonietta relish challenges like this, and keeps them moving so fast, it feels like the orchestra will suddenly levitate.

Was Esa-Pekka Salonen in the audience? He was one of Castiglioni's relatively few students. His own style, as conductor and composer, reflects Castiglioni's ideas of light and brightness, concealing great depth.  Quickly would be fun to hear with the Philharmonia, but it would be a good idea: it might stun the usual Festival Hall audience, and make them realize that very modern can mean very good.

Julian Anderson's latest The Comedy of Change (2009) received its premiere.  I've left it for last, not because it is last in any way, but to do it justice.  I liked this and want to hear it again, soon: Anderson's music is very organic, using sounds that feel like nature's being incoporated into its very heart. Part of the inspiration behind The Comedy of Change is the idea of evolution, and the way living creatures adapt and change. Hence, perhaps, seven movements, some played without a break. Change becomes part of the music. It starts with harp and flute, but sounds timeless, as mysterious as a digeridoo. From this emerges low, languid violin. The percussionist uses something that sounds like crumpling paper : being a visual person, I think "unwrapping", but it's very beautiful : that violin sounds primeval, like the stirring of life.

More organic sound, three violins playing rippling figures, the rivulets deeping with violas.  The percussion (xylophone and marimba) clatter along: Messiaen bird feet scuttling, discovering flight at the beginning of Time.  Towards the end the low voice of a bass clarinet deepens the mood, but the overall feeling, for me, was movement up the scale, plants emerging towards the light, maybe. Anderson's music is visual, but none the worse for that because it feels rooted in real life. Comedy of Change reminds me of his much earlier Symphony, where a thread emerges from great depth, like a stream turning into a river. It's on the excellent Book of Hours CD from NMC.  Read more about it HERE.


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John said...

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