Sunday, 10 May 2009

Harmonics is me - Salvatore Sciarrino

The identity of the violin soloist for this performance of Salvatore Sciarrino's Caprices was a secret until the very last moment when she walked in. Carolin Widmann! This was a bonus as she knows Sciarrino and had polished her interpretations with the man himself. "Why do you only do harmonics?" she asked him once. "Because I am harmonics," was the whimsical reply. Enigma, and gentle humour, that's Sciarrino all over. "The man", says Widmann, "seems to walk just above the ground,"

That should be no surprise to those who love his music, (see the earleir post below or via label) which seems to hover in a rarified atmosphere, pitched so high it's almost beyond human hearing. Nowadays we have so much aural overload that it's easy to forget how to listen to simple purity. It's a bit like watching ants : we don't notice them but they communicate and have busy lives. Sciarrino's high registers are there because the music is always on the threshold of floating away, elusively, if we don't listen carefully enough. This sensibility involves the listener rewarding him or her with a different perspective. It's the complete opposite of the new fashion for music as consumer product, imbibed mass rally style. To think that Dudamel was on this same platform last week.

Sciarrino's music isn't difficult though. It's intuitive and life affirming, so you can just chill. In any case Sciarrino's music springs from tradition, so even those who know nothing of new music can find points of entry. Widmann demonstrated. She played a passage from Paganini's Caprices and then the same from Sciarrino's: a direct quote but reinvigorated in a different way – sheer, pure light, as if from another plane of existence. "This music is like learning a new language", she added, with its unusual aesthetics and quirky technical challenges. At one stage, Widmann's fingers were poised at the extreme upper end of the neck of her instrument, while sweeping her bow in dizzying diagonals. The notes refers to the "brushing" of strings with the bow rapidly alternating between tasto and ponticello. This is music to be watched for maximum impact, because the sounds are so elusive you can't grasp them on recording alone.

Of the six Sei Capricci (1976) tonight we heard only I, II, III and the all important VI, the biggest section, which pulls together what's goe before and ends with a short pause and joyful flourish. Like a smile ! Then ten members of the Philharmonia materialised for ...da un divertimento. This is an early piece, from 1970. more "concrete" in the sense that the forms are easier to grasp. The larger ensemble also means more space to let ideas grow, so can hear subjects and reiterations etc. What's already there is Sciarrino's way of making things sound quite unlike what you'd expect. The bassoon, for example, sounds remarkably lithe for an instrument normally so resonant. Then the bassoonist, clarinettist and oboist pull out the reeds from their instruments and blow them through their cupped hands. This may sound silly on the written page, but in performance it's very effective. It's the essence of a mouth blown instrument, pared down to basics, the sound so quiet you could miss it if you weren't paying attention.

This was the second to last in the "Music of Today" series, created by Julian Anderson at the South Bank. It's been wonderful, hearing good new music presented intelligently and by someone who knows what he's talking about. Let's hope the series repeats next season. Or gets picked up by the BBC, whose "Hear and Now" slot could use major refurbishment.

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