Gérard Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques is a ground breaking work which defies assumptions about what music “ought” to be. Not for nothing did the composer describe it as “a great laboratory”, exploring the way we listen.
Written from 1974 to 1985, it’s actually six pieces which can be enjoyed separately. This was the first
Yet Les espaces acoustiques grows outwards from extreme simplicity. A basic melodic cell repeats like in spiral, back and forth, each time with tiny gradations of pitch. It’s a tour de force. Paul Silverthorne demonstrated why he’s the foremost violist in
Grisey was a student of Olivier Messiaen, and dedicated the 4th section, Modulations, to him. Since George Benjamin was also Messiaen’s student, this performance took on overtones reminiscent of Messiaen, particularly Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. The double bass theme reflects the “walls of solidity” and the extensive brass the “final trumpet” fanfares. Benjamin connects Les espaces acoustiques to the ideas of time, space and eternity in Messiaen, like borrowed vistas in landscape. Just as Grisey’s music expands from simple cells, it thus grows “beyond” itself, into a vast new conceptual universe. Benjamin was extremely perceptive, for this “value-added” approach enhances Grisey’s concept of infinite possibility. You can enjoy this music in a vacuum, but it’s so much more fulfilling in a wider context. In some circles, it’s fashionable to call Messiaen “history” but anyone with any knowledge of his influence on composers as diverse as Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis, Grisey, Murail, Anderson and Benjamin himself, will know that’s nonsense.
Messiaen also influenced conducting style, since music of such subtle colour needs performance of great clarity. Benjamin is a lucid conductor, and gets brilliant results. The London Sinfonietta has long championed Grisey’s music. Balances were finely judged, even details like the varied mutings of brass deftly executed. When the viola resurfaced between the 5th and 6th sections, it shone clearly, proving its central role in the whole structure of the cycle. In the Epilogue, the four horns stood proud above the massed orchestra.
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Please see the whole with extra pix