Thursday, 27 July 2017

More than Pictures at an Exhibition - Volkov Julian Anderson Liszt

Ilan Volkov photo: Alastair Miles, courtesy Maestro Arts
The Imaginary Museum - Julian Anderson's Piano Concerto at Ilan Volkov's Prom 16 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the most innovative Prom programme so far, and possibly the best performance, too.  Music doesn't exist in a vacuum, but in a continuum. Volkov's eclectic programme showed how visual images and music connect: a cross-fertilization that reflects the panorama of human experience.  Though the Prom was billed "Pictures at an Exhibition" because Mussorgsky sells, the heart of the programme was Franz Liszt';s tone poem From the Cradle to the Grave (Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe).  In April 1881,  Liszt received a drawing from the Hungarian artist Mihály Zichy. Zichy was preparing a book of illustrations tracing the role of music in life, from birth to death and the afterlife, and wished to portray Liszt as the Muse of Music on its title page.  Liszt was delighted. "Celebrated Artist!", he wrote "Your drawing about the Genius of Music is a miraculous symphony! I am trying to set it to music and shall offer it to you".

Though composed as a symphonic poem in one movement, Liszt's From the Cradle to the Grave unfolds in a series of vignettes, like the illustrations in Zichy's volume. The gentle first phase suggests, perhaps, innocence, though there's no obvious lullaby melody.  Gradually  textures develop, the tessitura growing higher until, ornamented by rich, shimmering strings and a trumpet, one might imagine the fullness of time. Then, silence and rarified calm. Although this piece isn't nearly as flamboyant as Liszt's Hamlet S104 from  1858, it's interesting because it's more inward, almost impressionistc in its abstraction. Hamlet, though, is a jolly showpiece full of colour and drama. An excellent opening piece, setting the stage, so to speak, and a counterbalance to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, (orchestrated by Ravel), where each "picture" tells a story.  An ebullient performance, though, nicely detailed. The BBC SSO are an excellent band, and have worked so long with Volkov that orchestra and conductor understand each other well.   

Julian Anderson is a composer whose visual imagination has stimulated and inspired his music for the last 25 years. Think Poetry Nearing SilenceImagin'd Corners, The Book of Hours, the Alhambra Fantasy, Eden (sparked off by Brancusi's The Kiss) and even Symphony, which, despite its non-committal title, is vividly graphic, like a fast-flowing mountain stream such as in paintings by Sibelius's friend Axel Gallen-Kallela.  Or, more recently, Incantesimi (at the Proms last year, with its multi-level layers in perpetual orbit, reflecting early machines used to explain the universe.  Indeed, I think Anderson's best work springs from ideas sparked by visual stimuli, as opposed to literary sources. Thebans, for example, though I liked it (review here) isn't at all typical of his work.

The Imagined Museum isn't typical Anderson, either, but it's a successful new departure for a composer who writes more for orchestra than for single instrument, and this is very much a piece where the soloist (Steven Osborne) is alone, in the foreground.

On the Radio 3 broadcast, Anderson explained how moved he was by a B flat which Steven Osborne played at the end of his encore at the Proms last year, the note echoing into the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall.   That note is thus the "found object" that starts this imaginary voyage.  Thus the title of the first of the six sections is "The World is a Window"  tiny single notes, stretch outwards in space, awakening the flute, then other instruments.  Suddenly, the piano strikes off in a new direction, Osborne playing long fast-moving lines, darker sounds in the orchestra suggesting vertiginous depth. Anderson says the idea came from Janáček's study of wells in Hukvaldy.  Thus time the "echo" is the sound of an object hurtling down a well, into inner space. Another transformation and we are once again in the open, the orchestra surguing as if on the high seas, the piano flying over the waves.  The strings introduce a sea change, and the piano once more defines single note patterns against a backdrop of silence. Where are we? Although there's a programme - of sorts - you listen with your mind. In the fluttering figures in the piano line do we hear a bird, or clear water, or winds in an empty desert?   Poetry is often more evocative than prose.  You could listen to Anderson in purely functional ways,  but I think it's rewarding to listen with an inner ear and wonder how the sounds act in relation to each other, processed through the effect that they have on your imagination. 

1 comment:

guydetrop said...

You are an excellent guide to The Proms. I hope you will do a retrospective devoted to your best memories of this year's Proms once they're over. I haven't listened to the new Anderson concerto yet but my favorite pieces so far have been the Birtwistle and the Dusapin cello concerto.
Looking forward to your future articles.