Julian Anderson Total Immersion at the Barbican with the BBC SO. yesterday. The evening programme was a well chosen retrospective. Anderson is prolific to a fault, so he can be uneven, so this was a good opportunity to relive his Greatest Hits. Nearly all these pieces are available on the NMC recording The Book of Hours (Knussen, Sakari Oramo, Martyn Brabbins etc) so it was good, also, to hear them conducted anew by Edward Gardner, who started conducting Anderson even before he started at the ENO. Indeed, Gardner conducted Anderson's Symphony in his very first concert at the Barbican 10 years ago (see my review).
Despite its non-committal title, Anderson's Symphony, too, was inspired by art and nature; in this case Axel Gallen-Kallela’s painting of Lake Keitele. It doesn’t matter what the picture looks like,, since the piece isn't literal but an abstract mood piece. For a full minute, all you can hear are vague sounds, like the rushing of a stream almost at freezing point. It’s wonderfully impressionist – you imagine the cold and the stillness, the wind, birds flying overheard. Ultimately, though, it’s the inventive, multi-layered orchestration that entrances. Flurries of harmony take off in different directions, and melody starts in one part of the orchestra, to be completed in another. Symphony isn’t formally divided into parts, but the development is fascinating.
Anderson's Eden (2005) was inspired by Brancusi’s sculpture ‘The Kiss’, where two solid figures become one monolithic whole through their kiss. Despite the plangent textures, this isn't the Eden of the Bible so much as Adam and Eve before the Fall, animal instincts without knowledge of sin. It's not a literal representation. Viola and cello curlU sensuously around each other, embracing, so to speak, in melody. The spirit is passionate, yet austere and simple, as clean as the lines of Brancusi’s style. As the orchestra takes over, the melody expands into something much more open and primeval. Anderson’s use of "medieval" references evokes the timeless imagery of ancient sculpture.He uses "hockets", melodies shared out between two or more instruments, which create a fluid sense of movement. It evokes thoughts of medieval part-song, as well as of the pealing of bells. The unsteady timbre of non-tempered tuning adds to the sense of strange unworldliness.
Eden and Imagin'd Corners are companion pieces, which explore the potential of non-tempered tuning in the latter case for five horns and orchestra. These make a more "natural" sounding intonation.. Early music in a sense, but also verging on atonality while connecting to a more ancient tradition. Four of the soloists move from different parts of the hall in a pattern that recreates "imagin’d corners", while one remains ensconced between brass and woodwinds. In this exuberant piece, the trumpet calls out, answered by the horns in joyous non-harmony.
Best of all, the most recent work (2015), Anderson's In lieblicher Bläue based on the poem by Friedrich Hölderlin.which inspired Hans Werner Henze's Kammermusik 1958 (Please read my review of the landmark new recording by the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin). Anderson's version is scored for violin and orchestra (soloist Carolin Widmann) . Though wordless, it's almost music theatre since Widmann moves around the performance space coming in and out of view, eventually turning her back on the audience. Channeling Hölderlin, isolated in his visionary fantasies, cut off from the "real" world, not giving a damn ! Thus the single chords, the violin tentatively "exploring" space, responding to the "moonlight" shimmering in the orchestra first with long stretching lines. then with vivid bursts of excitement. A huge arc of orchestral sound, swirling and spinning round as if the moon were illuminating the poet's troubled mind. Delicate touches of poercussion, bell-like sounds but also violent chords. The violin emerges again, long beautiful lines behind which the orchestra rumbles disturbingly. Then a flurry of single plucked notes: too disjointed to form melody. Hölderlin's fragmented mind. Scurrying figures and high tessitura. Squeaks of excitement ? Darker angular chords in the orchestra and elusive figures, half-formed and a more haunted terrain. The violin (and Hölderlin) remained unperturbed, long serene lines lit by "moonlight". No resolution. Gradually the textures thinned out and the violin sang , alone sound so high thatn it dissipated into silence.