Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Heinz Holliger - (S)irató - Prom 26 2009

Heinz Holliger's (S)irató is in a whole other league from the several premieres of good new music so far at the Proms: it's outstanding. Listen to it when it repeats on BBC Radio 3's Listen on Demand. This is a serious work in every way.

In his youth, Sándor Veress (1907-92) studied with Béla Bartók, absorbing his interest in Hungarian folk music as an alternative to the Austro-German mainstream. These were turbulent times in Hungary. In 1941 when Hungary was being drawn into the European war, Bartók was able to move to America, but Veress remained. Budapest was besieged and the Russians imposed a Communist regime. In 1949, Veress defected and escaped to Switzerland, but had a hard time getting recognition. Holliger's (S)irató is thus part requiem, part protest, hence "irato" (irate) in the title and in the vehemence of the music.

The music is dark, even the piano dwelling in its lowest register. Against the gloom, staccato blasts of brass, sudden, brutal crashes of gongs and timpani, cataclysmic, chaotic passages where every instrument seems to clamour at once, small clattering sounds. Then a strange eerie line, pitched so high it's almost painful, which soars upwards. It's transitional: whatever it represents, it marks a break. Calum Macdonald, in his notes says "the entire orchestra creating the sky into which the yearning strings, perhaps, elevate the soul of Veress toward some interstellar apotheosis." If it's too shrill and pointed to be soothing, that's perhaps part of the message. Along with people like Andras Schiff and the Bern Camarata, Holliger knew about Veress's troubles and tried hard to promote his music. Of all the "new" pieces so far in this year's Proms, (S)irató is easily the most profound and mature. It reminds me of Boulez's Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, a powerful work where groups of instruments move in solemn procession. It's intensely emotional, but clothed in dignity. David Robertson conducts it at the Barbican in November.

Look at the
Veress website where there is a list of his works, links to scores and a discography. In the gallery there's a photo of the elderly Veress with a very young Holliger, already with trademark hairdo. It's lovely. A lot has been made of "Swiss" music or the lack thereof. Arthur Honneger? Othmar Schoeck? Frank Martin? Joachim Raff? Ernst Bloch? and that's not including the more modern ones and people like Paul Sacher, Armin Jordan, Ansermet, even Richard Wagner who wrote a couple of famous bits while in exile outside Zurich. What is "Swiss music" anyway, or indeed any national style not consciously based on something distinctively regional? Holliger writes into (S)irató passages for cimbalom, an ancient instrument associated with Hungary. It's a reference to another world, another time, linking Veress's youth to his forty years' residence in Switzerland. There's a resurgence in new music for cimbalom, because it creates such unworldly, ethereal sounds, so it's becoming international.

The rest of Prom 26 ? BBCNOW under Thierry Fischer aren't the most exciting of BBC orchestras, but I was quite pleased by the excerpts from Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps it's more their metier than Mendelssohn. I was looking forward to Mendelssohn 1st Symphony, but will stick to recordings. Isabella Faust has a huge discography for one so young, but this was her first live appearance at the Proms. Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto is a piece every violinist aspires to. It can be breathtakingly beautiful, but here it was good rather than awe-inspiring.

Coming next : Birtwistle and London Sinfonietta Prom 27 - lots to write about so please wait. Will include digressions on Paul Klee and prehistoric sites.

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