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Fragments of Venice: The Music of Luigi Nono – Concert 1

London Sinfonietta/Diego Masson
QEH, London – 1st October 2007

In recent years, the Southbank Centre has been host to a number of concert series featuring modern and contemporary composers, including Sir Harrison Birtwistle in 2004 and Iannis Xenakis in 2005.  This year focuses on the work of Luigi Nono, a composer underperformed in this country.

In a fascinating pre-concert talk Nuria Schoenberg Nono (Luigi’s widow and Arnold Schoenberg's daughter) shed light on Nono’s (‘Gigi’ as she called him) philosophies, both political and musical, along with an endearing account of how she came to meet the composer.

For somebody with little knowledge of Nono’s work, the information given here would have proven invaluable, not necessarily in understanding his compositional processes, but in finding a correct way to listen to the music – which I have personally found challenging in the past.

The concert itself began on a rather sombre note, with news of the passing of the London Sinfonietta’s principal flautist, Sebastian Bell, marked by a short speech by John Constable, the Sinfonietta’s principal pianist, and a performance of Berio’s Autre fois for flute, clarinet and harp.

The concert proper kicked off with Nono’s early Incontri.  Certainly a formidable work, it doesn’t possess the anxious stasis of his later output, but a more immediately abrasive style, similar to the louder parts of Webern.  Not only a challenging piece, but the programme note by Nono himself doesn’t give us much to go on either.  We were told that the two independent structures that make up the piece are completely different in almost every way, but coexist in ‘a synergetic relationship’.  I’m still unsure what this means. Satisfyingly audible was the palindromic element of the overall structure, the fanfare-like opening gestures becoming increasingly infrequent, then returning, with a more obvious gesture in the piccolo just before the conclusion to hammer the concept home.

Next came the "light-listening" part of the evening with Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie Nr.1.  A rather peculiar piece, a bridge between Schoenberg’s earlier works such as Verklärte Nacht and his later atonal music after the Second String Quartet.  With simply presented themes and a narrative derived from a traditional symphonic form, it can prove a satisfying listening experience for people not well acquainted with ‘modern’ music and a way into more adventurous works. The performance had real drama and a clarity that can often be lost in Schoenberg’s characteristically dense music.

One of Nono’s earliest works, his 1950 Variazioni canoniche sulla serie dell’op 41 Arnold Schoenberg, was similar to Incontri, but with a more linear structure as one might expect from variations even as bizarre as these.  With no apparent theme other than a note row not heard until near the end, some small cells taken from Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Op.41, and with the only variations as small surface details, the piece nonetheless engaged me throughout.  The actual variations are so small as to be inaudible, the theme so abstract as to be undetectable, but the sheer vibrancy of the sounds was so strong I couldn’t help but enjoy it!

The final work No hay caminos, hay que caminar (roughly translated as “There is no path, only travelling itself” came from much later in Nono’s life, and with a very different compositional philosophy.  Nuria Schoenberg Nono described her husband’s later work as conveying a kind of political suffering, and the result is undeniably intense.  Inspired by graffiti Nono found in Spain it is obviously a striking title and an interesting idea, but I couldn’t work out its connection with this particular piece.

Along with many other works in this late period, including Fragmente-stille…an Diotima and La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura, No hay caminos… contains very delicate, but intense and concentrated gestures, separated by periods of silence.  It has no sense of progression, preferring to dwell completely on the moment, so the piece provides us with no real ‘journey’ to speak of.  I found this the least rewarding part of the concert and couldn’t understand why the piece was stretched out for nearly twenty minutes.

Perhaps part of the problem was that the score features extreme dynamics often at ppppp or even pppppp (pianissississississimo!), which made a mezzo-forte a huge event. Though the textures were immaculately played, it started too loud, which severely hampered the piece’s overall drama. All that said, I found this infinitely more interesting than Feldman's rather definitionless voids, since at least here the silences have a tension of their, making them just as important as the notes.  If we’re going to have this kind of stasis, let’s have it Nono’s way.

Nathaniel Cope