Finacial Times

Shadowtime Munich Biennale SHIRLEY APTHORP THE CRITICS.
329 words
27 May 2004
Financial Times
London Ed1
Page 15
(c) 2004 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved

There are times when the music seems to go past too quickly, one idea following the next at such speed that it's impossible to take any of them in. This is deliberate. Angels, we are told, are deaf to time, since they exist beyond it. Brian Ferneyhough wants us to know what it feels like to be an angel.

Shadowtime is a big event in the new music world. It's the 61-year-old composer's first opera, an unlikely and savagely complex debut.
Maturing in the intellectual exile of continental Europe, British-born Ferneyhough soon became a dominant figure in Darmstadt, home of post-war modernity. The term "new complexity" was coined for his style. Now Ferneyhough teaches at Stanford University, but the Californian sun hasn't mellowed him.

Four-and-a-half years in the making, Shadowtime is a seven-part reflection on the philosophy of Walter Benjamin. Its premiere at the Munich Biennale this week will be followed by performances in Paris, New York and the Ruhr Valley.

Of course there is nothing as trashy as a narrative in the work, though it does open with the last night of Benjamin's life, just before his 1940 suicide on the Spanish border. For the rest, there are canons, interrogations, tableaux and lectures, all arranged in strenuous symmetry around Charles Bernstein's opaque libretto.

Nobody can play Ferneyhough's music. The best they can hope for is an approximation of the score. In this, the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam under Jurjen Hempel come formidably close to achieving the impossible.

Director FredericFisbach does what he can to make a homogenous whole from this disparate hodge-podge, but he can't disguise the fact that this is not an opera but an assortment of musical numbers that lasts for two hectic hours. Challenging? Yes. Entertaining? Occasionally. Comprehensible? Perhaps to an elite handful.