Péter Eötvös The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
The basic architecture of Eötvös's The Sirens Cycle is simple, yet classic: three parts each devoted to different responses to the legend of the Sirens, whose singing is so lovely that those who listen are lured to their deaths. Seduction and destruction: opposite poles eternally pulling together and apart. The first part is based on James Joyce's Ulysses, in which the legend is retold in Joyce's highly unusual syntax, where words fragment and language is subsumed by sounds that aren't necessarily coherent but generate fleeting images. Tosh, perhaps, but oddly compelling. Indeed, abstract sounds amplify meaning. What to make of lines like "Chips.....Horrid and gold flushed more" ? Eötvös replicates Joyce's choppy phrasing with flurries of syllabic sound. The word "Chips" is projected as a high-pitched gasp which claws at the ear, so the rounded "o" sounds in "horrid" and "gold" and "more" seem to churn around on themselves. Or lines like "A jumping rose on a satiny breast of satin, Rose of Castille, trilling idolores" ? Eötvös breaks the words into tense, choppy figures, deconstructing the idea of satin and roses.
Images of bronze, gold and roses recur, linking the passages together with a kind of inner logic, highlighted by Eötvös's setting, as idiosyncratic as Joyce's poetry, for that is what it is, ideas evoked not by figurative meaning but by allusion. Thus the third section in the first part "O Rose ! /Castille the morn is breaking/ jingle jaunten jingling coin rang /Clock clacked." Crazy, zany rhythms, almost joyous, yet brought down to earth by a sudden drop in the timbral temperature: a hard ending to flights of fancy. Similarly the "Clap-clap, Clip-clap, Clappy-clap" of the sixth section where energy is abruptly cut short. "I feel", the line drawn out, going silent, then snapping back. "So sad". Joyce mentions "Liszt's Rhapsodies" and Eötvös creates a spooky nocturnal waltz. Wittily, he captures Joyce's bizarre wordplay, "my epp ripff taph/ Be pfrwritt"
Although Barbara Hannigan was scheduled to sing, I was thrilled to hear that Piia Komsi was stepping in at very short notice indeed, for Komsi's voice is phenomenal, capable of extremes of pitch and textures beyond the range of most, combined with extraordinarily crisp articulation. Her voice is almost superhumanly elastic, her diction precise even in phrases as convoluted as those thrown at her by Joyce and Eötvös. She embodied the Sirens, supernatural beings who defy the boundaries of Nature. Komsi's death-defying flights up and down the scale could drive one mad with rapture. Komsi is a vocal gymnast, but so poised that she can make the ethereal sound perfectly natural.
And thus the Interlude, by which Eötvös separates the Parts of the Siren Cycle. In this first interlude, the Calder Quartet created whooshing sounds, suggesting movement within a compressed range, like wind channeled through a tunnel. An image of time travel ? We fly into the ancient world, with Homer's verses in Greek, intoned with gravitas. Again, Eötvös captures the metre of the poet's individual language. The lines seem to curve upon themselves like sonorous echoes. The Sirens (or rather Komsi and the Calder Quartet) seduce in honeyed tones: Komsi's voice warms sensuously, the violins, viola and cello singing along with her, in luscious chorus. Significantly, Eötvös breaks off from the Siren's song with a short interlude where the strings sing troubled foreboding. Tough old Odysseus, despite his resolve, longs to listen.
Franz Kafka's story from 1917, Das Schweigen der Sirenen "Um sich vor dem Sirenen bewahren" supplies the text for the Third Part of Eötvös's Siren Cycle. Another change of literary syntax: Kafka's lines are more prose than poem. His handling of the subject is at once more brusquely down to earth, and yet more horrifying. Odysseus escapes the Sirens by stopping his ears up with wax. He's tied to the mast so he cannot break free and join them. But the Sirens have eine noch schreckliche Waffe als den Gesang, nämlich ihr Schweigen, (an even more terrifying weapon than song, namely their silence). Odysseus thinks he's outsmarted the Sirens but perhaps it is they who have outsmarted him by withholding their song, leaving him with his illusions. For a musician, that's a an astonishingly ironic solution. It thus casts the whole Siren Cycle as a meditation on the nature of song and art, and the absence thereof. This also connects with the references to song in Joyce's text, the Rose of Castille being Balfe's operetta, the cry "Martha" in Part 1 section 5 being Flotow's Martha and, of course the snatch of Liszt rhapsody. What, then, is the mood in this final part of the cycle? Its rhythms are sturdier than the skittish First Part, yet also oddly nostalgic. Are we to think of popular music wafting all around us, even if we'd like to remain aloof? Komsi's voice takes on a soubrettist tinge. Is she coquette, destroyer or Muse? No easy answers. But that is the beauty of Eötvös The Sirens Cycle : there's a lot more to it than meets the eye, or ear.
Purposefully, this recital began with Eötvös's Korrespondenz (String Quartet no 1, (1992) which the composer describes as "a mini opera for string quartet", since it's based on the correspondence between Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The son was lonely, in Paris. The father withheld news of the death of his wife, whom the son loved dearly. Deception, even though well meant: the ingredients of psychodrama. The first violin (Benjamin Jacobsen) and the viola (Jonathan Moerschel) talk at each other rather than to each other. Their music seems to connect but there's a palpable gulf. One of them is singing, but the other refuses to hear. It's The Siren's Cycle, in microcosm. Separating the two, defusing the dynamite, so to speak, the Calder Quartet played Debussy String Quartet in G minor op 10.
This review also appears in Opera Today
(Photo of Eötvös copyright Istvan Huszti)