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The Southbank Centre
11 Feb 2013

Erik Satie, Socrate and Igor Stravinsky. Renard and other works

This concert was part of a greater weekend of concerts at the Southbank Centre looking at Paris during the second and third decades of the twentieth century, the weekend itself part of the year-long Rest is Noise season.

Erik Satie, Socrate and Igor Stravinsky. Renard and other works

A review by Mark Berry

Above: The Southbank Centre


An arresting opening — which I initially feared would irritate, but which actually worked very well — was provided by Harriet Walter’s narration, replete with East Coast accent, presenting a first-person sketch, written by Timberlake Wertenbaker, of the life of Winnaretta Singer. Daughter of the inventor of the sewing machine, Isaac Singer, Winnaretta went on to become the celebrated musical patroness, Princess Edmund de Polignac, commissioning both Socrate and Renard, though Diaghilev’s machinations and Stravinsky’s duplicity — at least according to this account — meant that her salon would not host the latter work’s premiere. Walter’s delivery of the script was just as excellent as one would expect from this fine actress: never overdone, effortlessly convincing. I wondered a little about the Princess’s, or rather Wertenbaker’s, claim that patrons go unsung. Not in my lectures they do not; indeed, I sometimes wonder whether I over-emphasise their role. I also wondered whether a male patron would have received quite so sympathetic a treatment: might we not at least have been led to think, ‘why should someone inherit all that money in the first place?’ But those are quibbles, and the narration, heard before Socrate and before Renard seemed to go down well with the audience.

Satie’s Socrate: oh dear. I tried; I really did. Doubtless some will say that was the problem. But for me, its sole redeeming feature was the excellence of the performances from Barbara Hannigan and Reinbert de Leeuw. Cool, white, monotonous, with the occasional subtle colouring of the vocal line: soprano and pianist were really beyond reproach. However, a work, like so much of Satie, which seems set up to forestall criticism — whatever you say against it, someone will respone, ‘well that is the point’ — had better be of Stravinskian quality if, as, for instance The Rake’s Progress does, it attempts that disabling tactic. Frankly, it makes one long even for the dullest of Stravinsky: Apollo, or Orpheus, say. Its lengthy ‘setting’ of Plato — is it really a ‘setting’ at all, when it seems to respond no more to the text than Rossini does in much of his Stabat Mater? — droans on and on, until, by the time the third part, ‘La Mort de Socrate’ opens, one feels as if one has been suffering the same composer’s Vexations. What a strange conception of ancient Greece this is; it almost makes one sympathise with Nietzsche’s venom against Socrates. The artists, admirably controlled throughout, made the most of the slight suggestion of drama as we heard of the poison’s arrival, but if the best one can say about something is that it is somewhat less tedious than the music of Philip Glass, perhaps it is time to wonder whether Satie has an Emperor, let alone clothes.

Stravinsky’s invention thus struck the hall like a thunderbolt. It always does, at least in good performances, and these performances were certainly that. A string quartet (Jonathan Morton, Joan Atherton, Paul Silverthorne, Tim Gill, all standing save for the cellist) drawn from the London Sinfonietta brought us the composer’s astonishing Three Pieces. The work’s strangeness, its utter dissociation from anything one might consider to constitute a string quartet repertoire and tradition still shocks — and certainly did so here. Defiantly post-Rite of Spring, this is in many senses a far more radical break with ‘tradition’, as unique as Le Roi des étoiles. Tightly focused rhythms and — as soon as one bothered to listen — a profusion of melody were hallmarks of this account. The final piece brought a sense of the hieratic, but what a contrast it made with the mere tedium of Satie. Here was music. Timothy Lines offered strong performances of the Three Pieces for clarinet, written five years later in 1919. If the first offered a gentler, one is almost tempted to say pastoral, sound-world, it remained utterly Stravinskian in its evident ‘construction’. And in any case, there was nothing remotely gentle about its joyous successor, nor to the third, which seemed to anticipate the world of Renard. The performance was rich in tonal and dynamic differentiation, rhythm propelling the notes and their ‘meaning’. The 1920 Concertino for string quartet followed, though oddly the programme had no notes on it. Again, the utterly individual approach of the composer not only to the medium of the string quartet but to stringed instruments themselves was immediately announced. A kaleidoscope of what Stravinsky would have hated one to call ‘moods’ — unless, of course, he arbitrarily decided to use the word, as in his Norwegian Moods — revealed itself during the work’s brief span. Here was concision to rival Webern, yet long before Stravinsky’s serialist turn. It sounded almost akin to a mechanised Beethoven Bagatelle.

Hannigan turned director for the wonderful burlesque, Renard, given in concert performance, Colour and rhythm were very much to the fore in a performance for which she seemed to act more as enabler than dictator. Old Stravinsky hands that the London Sinfonietta are, that is doubtless the right way around. Thematic consistency during and after the opening March was especially noteworthy; this was no mere collection of episodes. Even when the Cock turned languid, ‘Sizhu na dubu...’ (‘I’m on my perch...’), rhythmic underpinning remained tight. There was room for seduction too, from the Fox with his cake. But above all what struck was the visceral nature of Stravinsky’s score, so truthful a representation of the or at least a childhood imagination. The London Sinfonietta’s performance could not be faulted; the four vocal soloists proved fine advocates too. If the tenors perhaps captured greater attention, that is probably more a reflection of score than performance. Why do we not hear this work more often?

Mark Berry

Satie: Socrate; Stravinsky: Three Pieces for string quartet, Three Pieces for clarinet, Concertino, Renard.

Barbara Hannigan (soprano/director), Daniel Norman (tenor); Edgaras Montvidas (tenor); Roderick Williams (bass); John Molloy (bass); Reinbert de Leeuw (piano); Timothy Lines (clarinet); Harriet Walter (narrator);Timberlake Wertenbaker (script writer); London Sinfonietta. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Sunday 10 February 2013.

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