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The Substance of Things Heard

The Substance of Things Heard: Writings about Music

paul griffiths
Volume: 31
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 395
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  • Book Info
    The Substance of Things Heard
    Book Description:

    Paul Griffiths offers his own personal selection of some of his most substantial and imaginative articles and concert reviews from over three decades of indefatigable concertgoing around the world. He reports on premieres and other important performances

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-649-3
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. acknowledgements
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. a debut
    (pp. 1-1)

    Each new work by Alfred Schnittke establishes him more firmly as Shostakovich’s heir, a composer at once overtly rhetorical and deeply mistrustful of his own rhetoric, at once greatly daring in his expressive range and force and highly sophisticated in his ironic self-observation. His Viola Concerto, written last year, is a typical nightmare of the Romantic spirit, and it had a suitably full-blown, fiercely varied and dramatic performance from Yuri Bashmet and the BBC Philharmonic under Valery Gergiev at the opening concert of the Lichfield Festival.

    Playing continuously for over half an hour, the work begins and ends with ruminative...

  6. Berio
    (pp. 2-11)

    Time and again, through the second half of the twentieth century, Luciano Berio showed how fully he understood music’s intimacy with gesture, memory, language and voice. Among the works considered below, his opera Un re in ascolto (‘A King Listening’) takes place in a theatre, where Shakespeare’s Tempest is at once being rehearsed and undergoing disintegration. His Sinfonia, for orchestra with voices, is one of the period’s classics, not least for its middle movement, in which the scherzo of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony sparks off quotations from throughout the western repertory since Bach. He also gave the age its hallmark studies...

  7. paths to Montsalvat
    (pp. 12-20)

    Wagner’s Parsifal is the story of a hero who brings new life to the knights of the holy grail, gathered in their castle of Montsalvat and hitherto languishing under a sinning, wounded king, Amfortas. In accomplishing this regeneration, Parsifal also destroys the magician Klingsor and heals the single female character, Kundry. Gurnemanz, one of the knights, is both narrator and observer, at an action that, like a ritual, will have to unfold again and again.

    The terrible tragedy at the heart of Wagner’s last opera is that of a work which knows it cannot fulfil itself, and Joachim Herz in...

  8. Carter
    (pp. 21-28)

    Elliott Carter drove on through all the ‘Stop’ signs put up by age. In his mid-sixties, after two decades devoted to just half a dozen big chamber and orchestral scores, he began writing songs. In his mid-seventies, when he seemed to be winding down with pieces for smaller formations, he starting producing orchestral works again. He composed his Oboe Concerto for concerts to mark his eightieth birthday, and still there was more, including his Symphonia for orchestra, a work in three parts, of which the first were Partita (1993) and Adagio tenebroso (1995).

    On Monday evening, during a pause in...

  9. da lontano
    (pp. 29-33)

    The marking appears quite often on musical scores: da lontano, ‘from the distance’. But all distances now are near, with non-western music so readily available in western concert halls and record stores.

    The South Bank/Radio Three festival of Asian and African music is proving immensely successful as well as revelatory, with large audiences to welcome music that is, after all, not so very alien. Hearing a Turkish ensemble play pieces from the Ottoman court is to recognize the Islamic strain in the monodic song of medieval Europe, while the north Indian singer Mohammed Sayeed Khan is clearly engaged in the...

  10. Gubaidulina
    (pp. 34-36)

    One of the first Soviet composers to benefit from glasnost, Sofia Gubaidulina became known in the west in the mid-1980s, especially for her violin concerto Offertorium and her female-male dialogue Perception, for soprano, baritone and string septet.

    Sofia Gubaidulina is a small, trim woman in her mid-sixties with a wide bowl of black hair (the gift of her Tatar ancestors) and a candid smile she repeated after each of the five performances in Wednesday’s Tanglewood concert entirely devoted to her. Her appearance accords with the simplicity of her music, which is not the simplicity of old modes, few notes and...

  11. a handful of pianists
    (pp. 37-45)

    In all his long career Horowitz has probably never before had to play against competition from the Pope, but of course the Festival Hall was packed for the second of his Saturday tea-time recitals, and no doubt it would be so if he appeared every week in London, not just twice in a generation.

    Surely his only reason for keeping himself scarce must be that more standing ovations would embarrass him, for at his recitals they are de rigueur. His showmanship demands a similarly spectacular response, and all is thoroughly justified by his confident ability to delight his audience in...

  12. Purcell 1995
    (pp. 46-59)

    The tercentenary of Purcell’s death, coming as the ‘early music’ movement reached its peak, was celebrated in triumphant style, onstage and in print.

    Now more than ever we are listening for what Gerard Manley Hopkins found—or, rather, for what famously found him.

    It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.

    ‘So that’—to continue the poem in the poet’s gloss—’while he [Purcell] is aiming only at impressing me his hearer with the meaning in hand I am looking out meanwhile for his...

  13. around New York
    (pp. 60-64)

    Diverse in its streams and destinations, the city becomes, at a moment of crisis, home to a vast ‘we’.

    Pierrot lunaire always sounds strange. Its voice—the voice of the soloist who declaims elegantly crafted nightmare poems in a manner between speech and song—comes from somewhere unfamiliar, a place known only to this piece. The voice speaks of sexual obsession, cruelty and blasphemy, of lurid visions and black practical jokes. It does not seem to have heard of normal behaviour, nor does it take the bizarre events and feelings it describes entirely seriously. A psychiatrist might want to describe...

  14. Tippett
    (pp. 65-71)

    Creative into his late eighties, Michael Tippett was a heartening and colourful figure at performances and premieres, including those of his last opera, New Year (1986–8), and his setting of Yeats’s Byzantium (1989–90). Farewells, when he died at the age of ninety-three, had to be celebratory.

    Tippett keeps on getting younger. Just ten weeks from his eighty-fifth birthday, here he is in Texas, sportively bejeaned, taking a gentle bow after a work which, but for the modesty of the amplification and also of the scenic resources, would have to be called a rock opera. Saxophones wail, a large...

  15. being in Assisi
    (pp. 72-89)

    Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise, first performed at the Paris Opera on 28 November 1983, steadily grew. But the composer’s view was always sure and the same.

    God does not choose his saints for their learning or his composers for their theatrical flair. It never seemed likely that Messiaen would write an opera, nor did he himself ever entertain such pretensions. When Rolf Liebermann first asked him, in 1974, he sagely replied that he had no gift for the theatre. But Liebermann persisted, Messiaen yielded, and now, after much delay, we have the result: an evening of Wagnerian length in...

  16. Boulez
    (pp. 90-108)

    Pierre Boulez’s most startling creative work came early, climaxing in the violent beauty of Le Marteau sans maître (1952–4), for a septet of dissimilar instruments including the contralto voice. Many later works he left unfinished (e.g. his Third Piano Sonata, 1955–7), disclaimed or recomposed: Pli selon pli, for soprano with an orchestra rich in chiming percussion, he began in 1957, first presented whole in 1960 and went on revising until the end of the 1980s. Meanwhile he gained and maintained acclaim as a conductor and forthright musical presence.

    Modern music grows old alarmingly. Pierre Boulez now is sixty,...

  17. the composer’s voice
    (pp. 109-124)

    An expectant audience has come to the concert hall to hear a new work by a major composer. The stage is set for a large chorus and symphony orchestra to perform. But only about half the performers are in place when the conductor arrives, and he is evidently in distress. He looks as if he is about to say something to the audience, offer some word of explanation. He gapes. No words will come. All he can do is motion to his scattered musicians to draw nearer, and begin.

    So starts Mauricio Kagel’s Kidnapping in the Concert Hall, which was...

  18. Mozart 1991
    (pp. 125-144)

    With an outpouring of performances, recordings and books to mark the bicentenary of his death, this was Mozart Year.

    These things are fortuitous, of course, but the bicentenary of Mozart has arrived at an interesting moment of change and possibility in the way his music is performed. Two decades ago the celebrations would have been safely in the hands of standard chamber orchestras—the London Mozart Players, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields—all of them performing a repertory from Bach to Stravinsky without worrying too much about changes in instrumental technique along the way. Now, when...

  19. a decade of Don Giovannis
    (pp. 145-154)

    The dark centrepiece of the three operas Mozart wrote with words by Lorenzo da Ponte, first produced in 1787, had messages of sex and death for two centuries later.

    Jonathan Miller’s production may not be the first Don Giovanni to be clothed uniformly in black and white, but it perhaps breaks some records in placing this night piece so much out of doors. The stage is dominated by three corners of anonymous buildings, or giant bookends, revolving to provide a variety of half-evoked interiors and street scenes. They are lit, by Robert Bryan, harshly, the cold white light coming straight...

  20. Henze
    (pp. 155-159)

    Never mind the physical strains of being sixty-seven years old, Hans Werner Henze was in buoyant mood. Despite a wrist injury, he had finished his new symphony. Now here he was in Symphony Hall, doing his utmost to disregard a damaged knee, marching down the aisle without his stick to acknowledge the applause for that symphony’s first performance, by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. The spectacle was that of a man still robustly upright in his bearing: in the dark three-piece suit and bow tie he chose for this premiere, he looked like a count, or the director of...

  21. operatic passions
    (pp. 160-183)

    Monteverdi’s second opera, Arianna, somehow got abandoned when musical history sailed away. It was written in 1608 for a Gonzaga wedding, and revised by the composer for later productions, but until recently nothing was known of it except for Ottavio Rinuccini’s libretto and a fragment of the music—though a substantial fragment, the heroine’s lament, comprising fully a tenth of the score and surely representing the opera’s apex. How that apex was approached and left could only be imagined. Now, however, the whole opera has been imagined for us, in what the title page of the vocal score aptly describes...

  22. Vivier
    (pp. 184-198)

    I first met the Canadian composer Claude Vivier ten years after his death. Someone had sent me a tape—the piece was Lonely Child for soprano and orchestra—and what I heard was as simple as a nursery rhyme, as tragic as a Mahler adagio, as formal as a noh play. It went on its way with harmonies glistening high above the slow vocal melody. It was like nothing I had ever heard, and it was beautiful. To be drawn into this music was indeed to meet another person and, through that other person, another world.

    Such experiences, arriving out...

  23. at the movies
    (pp. 199-207)

    Most film directors come to have an effect on composers during the course of their work; not many continue doing so from beyond the grave, as Andrei Tarkovsky has. In 1987, the year after his death, two distinguished composers, Nono and Takemitsu, independently wrote musical memorials to him. Four years after that Abbado put on a concert in Vienna to include the Nono piece, commissioning for the occasion further tributes from Kurtág, Rihm and Beat Furrer. Now a recording of that concert has been released as ‘Hommage à Andrei Tarkovsky’, whose appearance, coupled with the recent screening of Tarkovsky’s films...

  24. Schoenberg on the stage
    (pp. 208-218)

    Arnold Schoenberg’s biggest work was an opera to his own libretto, Moses und Aron, of which he wrote the first two acts in 1926–32 and left the third, despite repeated promises and hopes, unset. Moses and Aron (i.e. Aaron) are the Biblical patriarchs, Moses being the visionary who cannot readily communicate his vision, Aron the spokesman inclined to sugar the message. Since its posthumous premiere, at Hamburg in 1954, the work has been one of opera’s great challenges. So has the composer’s short opera Erwartung (‘Awaiting’), whose sole character is a woman seeking her dead or departed lover.


  25. five British composers
    (pp. 219-224)

    It could never have been predicted that Mrs Thatcher would preside like an Astraea over a renaissance of British music, but the past seven years have proved astonishingly productive, and the summer festival at the South Bank is reflecting some of the dazzle. Just twenty-four hours after the premiere of Birtwistle’s new opera, the London Sinfonietta were back with a programme of new and very new music by younger composers. Apart from two contrasted dawnscapes, Simon Holt’s ominous . . . era madrugada and George Benjamin’s celebratory At First Light, all the works came from the past year or so....

  26. Lachenmann
    (pp. 225-230)

    Widely esteemed in mainland Europe from the late 1960s onwards, Helmut Lachenmann was slow to gain performances and appreciation in Britain and the USA, where the view stemming from the writings of Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno—that music, inescapably reflecting the disintegration in western societies, must advance into the previously unheard, marginal and rejected, avoiding the easy options of regression to older norms or compromise with popular music—had less hold. By the end of the century, though, his importance was inescapable.

    The ICA’s concert series, returning for another summer season of Sunday nights, can be relied on to be stimulating....

  27. mapping Mtsensk
    (pp. 231-235)

    Shostakovich’s opera The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was first performed in Leningrad in 1934, and for two years was highly prized as a major work by the Soviet Union’s outstanding young composer. Then Stalin saw it. The piece was denounced and withdrawn, and though Shostakovich was able to put out a modified version in 1963, the original version was not seen again until after his death.

    The official banning of Shostakovich’s second opera has often been seen as evidence that Stalin had no ear for music; but perhaps the father of his people saw and heard right enough what was...

  28. Stockhausen
    (pp. 236-246)

    In the early 1970s Karlheinz Stockhausen was the most highly regarded member of the brilliant generation that had emerged soon after World War II. His renown depended on works that were already old, such as his electronic piece Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–6) and Gruppen for three orchestras (1955–7), but it held, and large concert halls would fill for his works. He was an inevitable presence at the great European festivals of new music, which still existed, if with less authority than they had enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s. (See the report below from La Rochelle and Royan...

  29. behind the rusting Curtain
    (pp. 247-254)

    One of the destinations has been whited out on the placard of excursions that the wide, empty Intourist office will organize from your Tbilisi hotel. You can still go to Metskhita, the ancient capital of Georgia, where within a stone-walled stockade you will see the thirteenth-century cathedral, a great block of green and ochre stone sculpted with vines, beasts, saints, zodiac signs and, reaching to measure the top of a high arch, the proud arm of the architect and his signature. You can still go to Borjomi, ‘world-famous mineral spa’. You can still see Georgian bread being baked, Georgian wine...

  30. Verdi at the Met
    (pp. 255-269)

    Suddenly coming upon a new one—Stiffelio—makes you notice what odd things Verdi operas are. Maybe this is a special case—an opera that is odd only because it is new to us, and new to us only because it was judged odd in the past—but that is not the whole story. Certainly Stiffelio is strangely formed in ways that are particular to it: the central character engages directly with the audience hardly at all, being heard mostly in duets and ensembles; his wife’s lover, who would be the clearcut villain of a more conventional tale, lives in...

  31. a quintet of singers
    (pp. 270-275)

    Song recitals are theatre, in which singers become other people, usually several at once. Cathy Berberian, in 1972, became a salon diva of the Edwardian era, and the review was an attempt to travel partway with her.

    By this point in his career José van Dam has seen a lot and been a lot—everything from St Francis to the devil. His performance of Schubert’s Winterreise at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday conveyed, in every breath, that length and breadth of experience, that variety of self-projections, all of which have also been self-examination.

    The expressive stance was one of utter...

  32. Schnittke
    (pp. 276-282)

    Alfred Schnittke was the most prominent Russian composer of the generation after Shostakovich, and by far the most productive, especially during the decade after Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival in power (1985), when his music seemed to match the rapid pace of events, the surprise, and the sense of history peeling back. There were three operas from him in those years, and four symphonies, not to mention numerous other orchestral and chamber works. Since this was also the period when much of his earlier music reached the west for the first time, the onrush was startling.

    If one wanted a nickname for...

  33. how it was, maybe
    (pp. 283-291)

    Where ‘early music’ at the start of the 1970s had meant ensembles specializing in medieval music or Monteverdi, during the 1980s performers on period instruments, and conductors pointing to support for their interpretations in studies of period practice, gradually took on a large part of what had hitherto been in the repertory of standard symphony orchestras, notably Bach, Haydn and Mozart. Soon historically informed performance became the new orthodoxy, and dizzying discoveries came: the most familiar music was refreshed, the previously marginal magnified and the unknown—even the unnotated—brought to life after centuries.

    Time is being swallowed up and...

  34. Reich
    (pp. 292-302)

    Before the premiere of his Music for Eighteen Musicians, in 1976, Reich worked as a rock musician would—exclusively with his own band, on tour and in the recording studio, and outside the mainstream culture that had accepted the music of, for example, Carter and Boulez. By the 1990s, though, there were no more countercultures; Reich’s music was one of the threads in a multicoloured tangle.

    Steve Reich toured Britain two years ago; last night he returned, to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, bringing a programme of music composed since his previous visit. It is with his work as a whole...

  35. tracks in Allemonde
    (pp. 303-322)

    So precise in its emotional colours, so clear in its levels of subtext, so innately itself in every gesture, Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande is nevertheless endlessly interpretable, by conductors, singers and stage directors. The situation could hardly be simpler. Pelléas is a prince, in the lost realm of Allemonde, and Mélisande the new young wife of his elder half-brother Golaud. The two fall in love, or more drift. Golaud’s jealousy mounts—frighteningly, as he forces his young son Yniold to spy for him and violently challenges Mélisande in the presence of his aged grandfather, Arkel. He kills Pelléas, whereupon...

  36. Birtwistle
    (pp. 323-343)

    Harrison Birtwistle’s was the great creative story of the 1970s and 1980s in London, where most of his major works were introduced, and where he thrived with institutions that shared his sense of music’s steady progress, notably the BBC and the London Sinfonietta. By the late 1980s he was a world figure.

    Quite how the Festival Hall could have been half empty for one of the most exhilarating concerts of the season is bewildering. Here was Stravinsky’s grandest late monument, Threni, a fascinating double piano concerto by the master of expressionist surrealism, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, and the first big orchestral...

  37. a departure
    (pp. 344-346)

    The maestro enters. He has come to the edge of the platform on the arm of an assistant, and now stands. Like a cat observing his prey, he has his eyes fixed on the podium, which seems challengingly distant at the tempo of his approach. Like a man walking through water, he rolls, supported by a chain of hands held out in alternation by his first violins and violas. At last, the destination reached, the leader moves forward to offer the baton. The whole process takes perhaps no more than fifteen seconds, but it has established the aura: this is...

  38. further reading and listening
    (pp. 347-350)
  39. Index
    (pp. 351-378)
  40. Back Matter
    (pp. 379-383)