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Helmut Lachenmann

Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung) and Concertini 2005 (London première)

Lachenmann “Transcendent” Festival Closing Concert
London Sinfonietta / Martyn Brabbins Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank 20 November 2006

The London Sinfonietta is by far the finest ensemble dedicated to contemporary music in the country. They also have no problems holding their own against their European counterparts/rivals Ensemble InterContemporain and the Ensemble Modern, as demonstrated in their astonishing performance of an all-Lachenmann programme at Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank.

This concert formed the jewel-in-the-crown of the aptly named “Transcendent” festival, a week-long retrospective of the music of Helmut Lachenmann, a composer only known sporadically in this country until fairly recently, but now gaining the recognition that he so richly deserves. We have been treated to works varying from Pression for solo ‘cello, to the massive and gruelling Ausklang for piano and orchestra. Tonight we heard two works for ensemble: the 1980s masterwork, Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung) [Movement (- before paralysis)] and the London première of Concertini, only completed 2005.  

Simply put, Lachenmann's music is characterised by a plethora of unusual instrumental techniques, often confused as a complete denouncement of traditional musical parameters, such as harmony and melody. In fact, Lachenmann has as great a respect for his country's rich musical past as Berio had for Italy's, and he considers his new sounds as an extension of the timbral palette for composers.

Just one look at the score of either Mouvement… or Concertini illustrates clearly exactly how detailed Lachenmann's music is, boasting no less than three methods of creating toneless hissing sounds, each with their own individual nuance. Of course, that entails added difficulty when it comes to performance, certain aspects of which were highlighted during the rehearsal. The composer showed a remarkable fastidiousness in terms of the execution of all his extended techniques, spending (but by no means wasting) more than fifteen minutes of valuable rehearsal time demonstrating exactly how to stroke a wooden box with a stick, to ensure the sound is just how he wants it.

Once the concert began, it transpired that this attention to detail had paid off. After a fascinating pre-concert talk with Tom Service, the Sinfonietta kicked off with Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung), one of Lachenmann's most extreme pieces, constructed almost entirely out of extended techniques. A special mention should go to the percussionists, for coping with incredibly virtuosic writing, both performing with tremendous verve. The pointillistic gestures, almost on the edge of audibility, swished and flew around the ensemble, with the resonances of one gesture giving birth to another, before morphing seamlessly in moments of soft repose, but never losing the sense of quiet apprehension constantly in the background.

Lachenmann's awareness of his place in the long-standing German music tradition was alluded to in an extended gigue-like section toward the close of the work, eventually fragmenting into the paralysis of the title; single pinpricks of sound, held in an almost silent void before the inevitable, but unpredictable halt. Clocking in at only twenty-three minutes, Mouvement… comprised a relatively short first half, but with music as intense and challenging as this, a break was certainly needed

The second half also contained only one piece, and that at thirty minutes only slightly longer. In this new work, Concertini, the resonances touched upon in Mouvement… were given another dimension, quite literally. Two smaller groups were placed halfway back in the QEH auditorium to give the audience a ‘sound diffusion' effect normally found in electronic music. This could all too easily be mistaken for simple antiphony, with the ensemble on stage, and another ensemble answering from elsewhere. However, I was lucky enough to have attended the UK première (Huddersfield, 2005) where the players where placed equally around the town hall balcony, giving a more even (and perhaps more authentic) effect – unfortunately the limitations of space at QEH meant that this was not possible. Lachenmann has said in interviews that he finds electronic music ‘sterile', but I find it admirable that he can pick and choose elements of electronic music to use within his work, such as the new, more abstract sounds of the instruments, and sound diffusion.  

Concertini is a tour de force for ensemble, and can be seen as a culmination of an entire career of Lachenmann's sonic explorations. The players of the London Sinfonietta clearly relished the opportunity to play this simply awesome piece – a fact that not only came across visually, but also seemed audible in the performance.

From the outset, Concertini has a wholly different ambience to Mouvement…, partly due to the integration of more 'conventional' sounds for the audience to cling onto; a luxury not given in some of the composer's earlier works. After an extended slow introduction, the latent energy builds into more driving music, with sounds sweeping through the air from front to back, side to side. The instrumental writing is intensely virtuosic throughout, more than justifying the title, implying miniature concertos. However, this was not merely a Bartókian series of solos, but a great number of intricate lines simultaneously, forming complex gestures then thrown around the performing space. Nonetheless, there were occasional solos for players alone, notably for harp and tuba, both performed expertly. Particular mention should go to the guitarist, placed in one of the outlying groups, who enjoyed a cadenza-esque passage of chords and broken resonance, which could have been perceived as a microcosm of that particular section of the piece.

The real soloists of the piece however, were the sounds themselves. Lachenmann states that the sections were characterised by the predominant sounds: for example, there is one 'concerto' for scraping sounds, another for resonance, and even one for the element of sound diffusion – the virtuosity of timbre demonstrated in the piece showed the work to be almost a 'concerto for composer'.

Lachenmann has been fascinated by resonance since his Wiegenmusik of 1963, but not since Ausklang in 1984 has he composed such a mesmerising study of the subject. The performance of Concertini seemed like a very short thirty minutes, a sentiment evidently shared by the rest of the audience as rapturous applause ensued and continued for a considerable time, punctuated by whoops and whistles as the composer himself emerged to join Brabbins and the Sinfonietta on the stage.

This was a truly magnificent close to the festival, and an honour to see and hear a new and imaginative piece given by some of the finest musicians in the country, and to an audience so receptive to this formidable music.

The genuine sense of palpable joy as the audience left was a testament to the work of Herr Lachenmann and the Sinfonietta. I imagine I speak for a great number of people when I say that I await a recording of Concertini with bated breath.

Steven Daverson

  This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 Hear & Now in January

Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung) is included in a Lachenmann DVD
(Wergo NZ 53)