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Cristina Zavanolli [Photo by Mark Galimberti]
17 Feb 2016

M is for Man, Music and Mystery

Peter Greenaway’s short film M is for Man, Music and Mozart, for which the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen composed the score, was commissioned to mark the bicentenary anniversary of Mozart’s death in 1791.

M is for Man, Music and Mystery

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Cristina Zavanolli [Photo by Mark Galimberti]


Characteristically cerebral yet playful, the film opens with a logo, ‘Not Mozart’, and a Magritte-like image of Mozart’s familiar silhouette, complete with periwig, minus his visage. The subsequent video-collage constructs the ‘man’ and ‘musician’ through the parts, and absences, which form the whole.

The Barbican Centre’s celebration of the music Louis Andriessen, takes its title from Greenaway. This series of performances and events, by the Britten Sinfonia and BBC Symphony Orchestra, similarly places side-by-side the eclectic influences - Bach, Stravinsky, Mondrian, Dante - from which Andriessen has drawn inspiration and reveals the composer’s distinctive musical voice.

In La Passione, Andriessen’s 2002 song-cycle on texts by the Italian poet Dino Campana (1885-1932), the two soloists, singer and violinist, are both accomplices and adversaries. Though stylistically and formally the work has more in common with Stravinsky than with Bach, there is a nod in the direction of the latter’s Passions in the quasi-obbligato function of the violin part, which, in Andriessen’s words, ‘shadows the voice in a diabolic way, exploring the threatening nature of much of the poetry, like the world of a Bosch painting’.

Britten Sinfonia credit Harry Rankin.pngBritten Sinfonia [Photo by Harry Rankin]

The work was composed for, and inspired by, Andriessen’s oft and close collaborator Italian mezzo soprano Cristina Zavalloni and violinist Monica Germino; the latter was indisposed on this occasion, but her replacement, Frederieke Saeijs, playing with considerable virtuosity and composure, was as immersed in Campana’s surreal hinterland as Zavalloni. Standing to left and right of the tightly arranged ensemble, the (amplified) soloists dramatized the poet’s mental anguish - Campana was troubled by mental health problems and spent the last 14 years of his life in a psychiatric clinic near Florence - Saeijs embodying a demonic presence in the poet-speaker’s mind. Campana’s strange symbolist texts depict an autobiographical ‘journey’ - physical and spiritual - from Marradi, through Bologna, Genova and on to Argentina. Zavalloni conveyed the terrors and travails of his quest for an ‘eternal moment’ which will bring peace, with visceral engagement, entering the poet’s fantastical, sometimes gruesome, dream-collage, with total commitment: indeed, some may have found her flinching, swaying, kneeling and hand-gesturing to be distracting.

Zavanolli did not neglect the lyricism in the pain, the sweetness in despair, and demonstrated enormous vocal versatility; if at times there were shrieks or sobs, and some problems with tuning at the top, then this did not seem out of keeping with the nature of the work. The mezzo soprano’s constantly changing vocal colour captured the full range of the text’s emotions, from ennui to elation, hallucination to pained lucidity. She relished the vocal glissandi and negotiated Andriessen’s awkward intervallic leaps, which convey the emotional instability which both disturbs and defines the poet-speaker, with unnerving ease.

Biting, angular brass fanfares herald the first song, ‘Una Canzone Si Rompe’ (A Song Breaks) - and the brass form a stable core in the instrumental sound-world, against the shifting colours of synthesisers, guitars, pianos, cimbalom, woodwind, strings and percussion. Zavalloni was a theatrical presence from the first, lured into the emotional drama by the orchestra’s persuasive syncopations. ‘La Sera di Fiera’ (The Evening of the Fair) was assertive but the singer slipped into more lyrical reverie with a memory, ‘Era la notte/ Di fiera della perfida Babele’ (It was the night of the fair perfidious Babel), and span a beguiling tale whose bizarre visions of ‘grotesque whistling’, ‘angelic little bells’, prostitutes’ cries and ‘pantomimes of Ophelia’ accrued a frightening, propelling energy. The entry of the violin, slow-moving and shrouded in dissonant harmonic arguments, exposed the poet-speaker’s vulnerability, which comes from absence of love: ‘Eppure il cuore porta del dolore:/ Lasciano il cuore mio di porta in porta.’ Campana infused the swelling final syllable with all the ‘pain’ which leaves ‘my heart in portal after portal’.

The wild vigour of Saeijs’ cadenza-like outburst - fiercely punched out low tones batting with the raging of the upper strings - embodied the ‘horned black form’ which haunts the following song, ‘Una Forma Nera Cornuta’, the searing strength of the violin tone calling forth an orchestra tumult. Saeijs was an eerie interloper in ‘O Satana’ (O Satan). Zavanolli addressed her antagonist with oratorical power, before the voice withdrew, sapped of its strength, and - with a vocal slide that signalled the poet-speaker’s desperation and defencelessness - called on the dark presence to ‘take pity on my long suffering!’

‘Sul Treno in Corsa’ (On the Moving Train) began with a nightmarish melange of jerking lurches and piercing whistles, before the rhythms acquired coherence and urgency: ‘la corsa penetrava, penetrava con la velocita di una cataclisma’ (the motion penetrated, penetrated with the speed of a cataclysm). Zavanolli literally squared up to her alter ego, asking ‘era la morte?/ Od era la vita?’ (was it death? Or was it life?) The final song, ‘Il Russo’ (The Russian) gave a bleak answer. The text depicts the execution of an unnamed Russian soldier. The crystalline, high violin line - almost vibrato-less, its intensity formed by the purity of tone and the focus of the bowed strokes - the juxtaposition of high and low wind, and the infiltration of an array of percussive knocks and pluckings by the violins, electric and bass guitars, and cimbalom, recreated the harrowing landscape, literal and figurative, of WW1. Saeijs, at first soaring confidently then challenging with vicious pizzicatos, baited the singer. But, an ‘eternal moment’, if not peace, was intimated in stillness of the poet-speaker’s realisation, ‘il Russo era stato ucciso’ (the Russian had been killed).

Conductor Clark Rundell was an unobtrusive yet reassuring presence, guiding the performers fluently through the contrasting songs, which flowed as an organic, single-movement entity. The Britten Sinfonia demonstrated unflagging energy as they surged through the hurtling, insistent - at times astringent - lines of Andriessen’s score.

In a concert in which percussionists and pianists dominated - there were almost more timpani and keyboards on stage than there were string players - the strings did ‘have their moment’, in the opening work of the concert: Steve Martland’s Blake-inspired Tiger Dancing. Commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia and the Henri Oguike Dance Company in 2005, it presents 10 variations inspired by William Blake’s The Tyger, and is based on Martland’s own setting of that text. Martland, who died in 2013 at the untimely age of 58, was a pupil of Andriessen - about whom he later wrote and directed a television film, A Temporary Arrangement With the Sea (1992) - and this work is infused with Andriessen’s fervent expressiveness. The rhythmic vibrancy of the work confirmed its dance origins, and proved infectious as the standing string players swayed and pulsed, stirred by the propelling energy of the jazz-tinged syncopations. Pizzicatos zinged like flashes of light; the bright buoyancy of the score is surprising given the dark energies and mysteries of Blake’s poem. But, the juxtaposed textures created their own arguments, and sombreness was present in the deep sonorities of the centrally-placed double basses whose strong, sustained assertions underpinned vigorous development above. Incisive - especially in the homophonic, fragmented assertions and rapid, repetitive textural effects - but not always completely precise, the Britten Sinfonia gave an alert and colourful rendition.

During the lengthy stage re-arrangement which followed, Rundell commented on the expressive and structural significance of William Carlos Williams’ poem, The Orchestra, to Steve Reich’s 1983 work, The Desert Music. The 50-minute work, impressively monumental even in the chamber orchestration presented here, opposes light and creativity with human destructiveness: the ‘desert’ is both the test-ground for the first atomic bombs and also a symbol of spiritual enlightenment. The work centres on the poet’s alarming warning: ‘Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish.’

The orchestra’s dissonant harmonies and reverberations, the textural contrasts and the sudden shifts of tempo seem designed to represent mankind’s struggle to control the diverse and at times disparate possibilities and to find order; and this is impression is emphasised by the palindromic structure of the work. The characteristic elements of Reich’s music are all here - the repeating patterns, the pulsing cycles, the imitations, the fluctuating meters - but there is a striking intensity, which is enhanced by the percussion’s almost incessant battering and pounding. From the amplified 10-strong Britten Sinfonia Voices - placed behind triple string quartet, four flutes, multiple percussion and several pianos and synthesisers - fragments of Willams’s text swelled and pulsed, floating freely. Unfortunately the Sinfonia Voices were exposed by the amplification, individual voices at times assuming undue prominence, and every tuning blemish writ large. The stamina of the instrumentalists was impressive but while Rundell was again a clear and consistent guide, the ensemble rocked at times. But, the overall effect was persuasive, and the close, as the bass line dropped away leaving the upper lines unsupported, was equivocal and thought-provoking.

Cristina Zavanolli returns to the Barbican on Friday 12th February to join the cast of Andriessen’s opera, La Commedia, accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Martyn Brabbins:

Claire Seymour

Programme and Performers:

Steve Martland: Tiger Dancing; Steve Reich: The Desert Music; Louis Andriessen: La Passione.

Cristina Zavalloni - mezzo soprano, Frederieke Saeijs - violin, Clark Rundell - conductor, Britten Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia Voices. Barbican Hall, London. Tuesday 9th February 2016.

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