Seen and Heard International Festival Review
9. Muenchener Biennale, 12-28 May, 2004
reviewed by John Warnaby
excerpt. full review at Seen and Heard
Brian Ferneyhough: Shadowtime; librettist: Charles Bernstein;
premiere: 25 May, 2004. Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart; Nicolas Hodges – Piano and Voice; Mats Scheidegger – Guitar; Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, conducted by Jurjen Hempel; Stage Director: Frédéric Fisbach..
Two Aspects of Modernism
The original modernists of the Second Viennese School extended the ‘romantic’ notion that musical language could convey intellectual ideas as profound as those associated with verbal language. This principle was given fresh impetus in the late 1940s, when a modernist sensibility achieved an even more intense form of expression. Brian Ferneyhough – ultimately, a disciple of Schoenberg – has kept faith with this aesthetic for more than 30 years and may be considered one of its principal present-day exponents. His extraordinary grasp of German, as well as English, has given him a fascinating insight into two rich traditions. With the help of his librettist, Charles Bernstein, he has devised a highly individual brand of music-theatre, based around the intellectual life of Walter Benjamin: its relationship to the society of his time and European culture, including his particular interpretation of history. In the process, Ferneyhough has matched Bernstein’s poetic word-play with music of convincing complexity and expressive power. Shadowtime is a philosophical opera, breathing new life into the ideas of an intellectual elite which all but vanished after the 1930s.
Shadowtime is Ferneyhough’s unique contribution to music-theatre: essentially his magnum opus, incorporating most of the fundamental elements of his creative imagination. The overall structure, though not the actual music, is comparable with the earlier Carceri d’invenzione cycle. Both have seven sections, pivoting around the fourth movement; and in each work, the advent of electronics in the final part introduces a metaphysical dimension. In both, the basic material is outlined in the opening section, though in this respect Shadowtime is more complex in that it also adumbrates metaphorical and philosophical aspects. Accordingly Part I was divided into six brief episodes whose impetus stemmed from Benjamin’s failure to cross the French-Spanish border into exile and his subsequent suicide. It contained the only realistic element in the work, particularly about the nature of time and history, could be explored – hence Ferneyhough’s description of Shadowtime as "a thought opera".
In response to the ambiguity of Benjamin’s thought, Ferneyhough’s formal scheme was subject to more than one interpretation. Thus, the organisation of the work contained suggestions of a palindrome. Part II – inspired by the notion that "angels are deaf to time" – was matched by part VI, for speaker and ensemble, where the Angel of History was depicted as Melancolia. Accordingly the kaleidoscopic interplay between guitar and ensemble was echoed by the equally kaleidoscopic interplay between music and poetry. Above all, Part VI was almost as ‘abstract’ in character as Part II. Besides reducing the poetic content to pure sound, Ferneyhough related Benjamin’s use of allegory to one of the most potent symbols of the Renaissance. Likewise, the canonic writing of Part III, the Doctrine of Similarity, for chorus and ensemble, was expanded into the various contrapuntal and other formal devices surveyed in Part V, the encounter between Benjamin’s spirit and various mythological or historical figures in Hades. Finally, while Part I could be regarded as an ‘exposition’, ultimately leading to Benjamin’s descent into the underworld in Part IV, Opus Contra Naturam, the remaining sections might be interpreted as an ascent, leading to a ‘recapitulation’ in Part VII, Stelae for Failed Time, for chorus and electronics, where the basic material attained fulfilment in a timeless, even metaphysical sound-world. On one level, the various transformations gave Shadowtime a clear sense of direction. At the same time, as the electronically modified voice faded at the conclusion, there was a definite impression the entire cycle could begin again.
Although only a small orchestra was deployed, and was absent from two sections, the overall production was surprisingly large-scale for such an ‘abstract’ concept, including a virtuoso chamber choir, a guitar soloist, a speaker, and a stage set designed as an analogue to events in the score. Equally significant was Ferneyhough’s avoidance of extended, or unconventional vocal and instrumental techniques. Nevertheless, the precision of the musical discourse meant that the utmost interpretative and technical virtuosity was required. Nicolas Hodges was particularly impressive in his dual capacity as speaker and pianist, not least in combining the two roles in Opus Contra Naturam. No less remarkable was the conductor Jurjen Hempel who exercised complete control throughout the work.
In comparison with Marc André’s bleak view of culture and of history Shadowtime offered a slightly more optimistic interpretation. It suggested that Ferneyhough and his librettist had come close to realising their basic concept, but also that abstract ideas could provide the stimulus for a powerful music-theatrical experience.
The five operas of the 9th Muenchener Biennale probably achieved a higher overall standard than hitherto. They undoubtedly exemplified the range and considerable potential of contemporary music-theatre.
In Germany Munich is often regarded as a culturally conservative city, yet with the Biennale, Hans Werner Henze, and now, Peter Ruzicka have infused an element of radicalism. Some of the smaller events were not well attended, but there was sufficient interest to justify three performances of all five operas. Not every Biennale can boast outstanding successes, but its latest manifestation has achieved an overall standard it will not be easy to match.