Monday, August 16, 2010

many voices

Friday, August 13
Lincoln Center Presents Mostly Mozart: Bach & Polyphonies

Ensemble Basiani
Ars Nova Copenhagen
Paul Hillier, conductor

Bach, Jesu meine Freude
Lux aeterna
Xenakis, Nuits
Traditional Georgian polyphony

Friday night opened up Mostly Mozart's mini-festival Bach & Polyphonies, a freewheeling meditation on counterpoint in all its forms curated by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Aimard has a way of putting together programs that is cunningly intellectual, forging artistic connections which sound brilliant on paper and usually make for a great concert as well (notable exception from last summer: Stockhausen's Kontra-Punkte in-between Haydn and Beethoven). And whether or not the concerts flow effortlessly, the music and performances are always at a high enough caliber that it doesn't really matter.

Polyphony does not make for a coherent theme. Rather, it allows Aimard to showcase a number of fascinating musical styles which happen to feature, at some point or another, multiple voices sounding together. Drawing tangible connections from Bach to Georgian polyphony to Ligeti back to Georgian polyphony to Xenakis would probably do injustice to all the music involved. But if the pretext of a single-name, four-day festival allows us to hear all of this music, then by all means go right ahead.

Bach's Jesu, meine Freude, the apotheosis of choral polyphony, opened the dual-chorus program. Under Paul Hillier's precise conducting (more impressive considering what a week he had), the Arvs Nova Copenhagen produced a wonder of crystal-clear textures, with crisp articulations perfectly matched to Alice Tully's newish acoustics. The ensemble sang with remarkable balance and great flow under Hillier's guidance, endowing Bach's sweet cadences with just the right amount of rubato. I wish, though, that Hillier could have created more drama with the work: his conception, based more on untangling tricky counterpoint than embracing heated religious passion, occasionally came across as sterile.

Not only did the Ensemble Basiani have the most awesome outfits ever, they also drove the Alice Tully almost-capacity crowd wild. Each of their songs (mostly liturgical chant under the auspices of the Georgian Orthodox church) showed off a different aspect of the tradition as well as different sets of skills. The opening tune Mravalzhamier was one of the best---two soloists declaimed "Let us sing together, brothers" with rich vibrato over a nine-man stentorian drone, gradually rising and producing steely, perfect intervals and Bachian cadences. Other songs in the first set highlighted luxurious parallel motion; blocks of serene, haunting sound; floating solos over quivering harmonies; and unsettlingly loud call and response. The sheer stylistic variety alone was impressive, and their singing was top-notch.

The return of Ars Nova Copenhagen brought the most exquisite performance of micropolyphonic Ligeti I have ever heard. That might seem like a subcategory of a subcategory, but it really does speak to the ensemble's virtuosic blend and Hillier's careful conducting (and, probably more importantly, rehearsing). Ligeti's works of the '60s, like Lux aeterna, the Requiem, Lontano, and Atmospheres, are typically referred to as brash, avant-garde, space-age, hyper-electronic. But to quote an old mantra of Schoenberg's, "My music is not modern, it is just badly played." With the refined control of the Ars Nova, Lux aeterna became a sea of lush colors, the dissonances ethereal rather than harsh. The score of Lux aeterna reveals a careful scientific exercise in polyphonic relationships, but in this performance it was something entirely extraordinary.

The return of the Georgian choristers brought an even stranger mix of music, touching upon both the reverent and the playful. Chela, the highlight of the second set, was a somewhat-goofy number in which a farmer sings his woes to his oxen. A soloist made a kind of hooting, almost howling yodel over the ensemble drone, in a light-hearted display of vocal stamina. For the final hymn, one of a grabbag of worksongs from the region around the Black Sea, the Ensemble Basiani demonstrated incredible choral vigor, intoning an enormously loud and badass blaze of sound.

Unfortunately, the weakest part of the program came last. The strengthArvs Nova Copenhagen brought to Lux aeterna caused Xenakis' Nuits to suffer. Xenakis fills this work, a paean to the misfortunes of political prisoners, with a gamut of shrieks, nonsense syllables, whistles, and mutters. But the ensemble's singing, while attentive to each individual effect, conveyed nothing of the ruckus---it lacked the essentially visceral nature of Xenakis's music and rendered the cacophony weirdly impotent.


A Little Night Music: Bach & Polyphonies

Bach, Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering
Eliott Carter, Three Pieces: Riconoszenza, Scrivo in vento, Tri-Tribute
Bach, Two Canons from The Musical Offering
Ligeti, Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano

After an hour of milling around the Lincoln Center plaza, some of the audience reconvened at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse for Aimard and his colleagues' chamber performance. Members of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe collaborated with the pianist to play more of what falls under Aimard's broad range of polyphonic music. Alternating between Bach and two moderns didn't reveal much about any of the composers, but provided a framework for excellent music-making.

A wisp of a piece, the Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering cleverly plays with several motifs from the collection, weaving together various aspects of the assortment of canons and fugues. Clara Andrada de la Calle's lithe flute and Mats Zetterqvist's rapt violin, with Luise's Buchberger's cello continuo and Aimard's surprisingly subdued harpsichord (the first time I've heard him an early instrument), worked together more like chamber musicians than Baroque specialists, creating engaging contrapuntal dialogues. Later, without Buchberger, the trio gave delicate performances of two canons from the same collection, the first austere and the second congenial.

Three Carter aphorisms from the past three decades of his career followed the first Bach selection. Much of Carter's music remains impenetrable to me, even after multiple listenings and reading Felix Meyer's and Anne Shreffler's insightful Centennial Portrait. Sometimes it just seems that his music lacks a sense of listenable coherency; it is difficult to ascertain structure or even narrative in many of his works without following along with a score The little Riconscenza for violin lacked a sense of overarching drive and its strident lyricism never reached any particular goal. Scrivo in vento fared better, alternating between long, airy flute melodies and sudden piercing tones, implying polyphony in a single line. Tri-Tribute was the most interesting, especially in Aimard's performance, which deliberately drew out the musical jokes in the wily score.

But the best part of the entire evening came last: a gleaming rendition of Ligeti's Horn Trio. Jonathan Williams joined Aimard and Zetterqvist in the fragmented, craggy score, one of the most profoundly sad works written in the past century. Though the work is somewhat indebted to Brahms, it is not truly a "Hommage a Brahms," despite its subtitle. In a fascinating 1993 lecture at NEC, Ligeti revealed that the dedication was to placate a wealthy, Brahms-loving patron in Hamburg who commissioned the work. Ligeti actually credits Haydn and Beethoven, as well as Henry Cowell and Harry Partch, for helping him find a way out of his stylistic prison: "I had one wall, the avant-garde, and the other wall, the past---and I wanted to escape."

The trio, if anything, resembles Mahler's Ninth Symphony with its two heaving slow movements surrounding two macabre dances. In the first movement, instruments groan in tandem, as if striving to remember a past loss. Messiaen-like rhythmic unisons interject in the piano and violin, painting a fractured landscape over which Williams' burnished horn mourned. A bossa-nova groove cascades through the second movement, emphasized by the deft swing of Aimard's constantly repeating left-hand pattern. The piano and violin become almost completely untethered in the third movement, in phasing patterns which echo Reich.

In the weeping, wailing finale, the horn holds a plaintive note while piano and violin lament. It is a chaconne, that antique form of operatic suffering, with the piano playing a crushing, powerful ground bass. But that bass harmony is not static, and does not remain restricted to the left hand; defying the norms of the chaconne, Ligeti forces the painful repetition to interact with the other instruments, rendering the woe all the more unbearable. An incessant, downwardly stabbing figure brings the piece towards an end, and the violin and horn whisper a final goodbye. Aimard and his colleagues gave a vigorously emotional rendition, with a soul-crushing conclusion. Questions of thematic relevancy became irrelevant, in the face of such fervid music.

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