The Guardian

Review: Classical: Ferneyhough in Focus: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 3/5

Tim Ashley
367 words
16 February 2004
The Guardian
Copyright 2004. The Guardian. All rights reserved.

"I'm a problem-oriented composer," said Brian Ferneyhough at Inventions: Ferneyhough in Focus, a day of concerts showcasing his work alongside that of composers he has influenced. He was speaking to us by way of a filmed interview, his face hovering like a shaggy-haired deity over the Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium as the London Sinfonietta noisily re-set the platform between pieces. Given his reputation for complexity, his comment caused polite titters among the audience.

The centrepiece was the UK premiere of Seven Tableaux Vivants, a scene from his music theatre work Shadowtime, which receives its premiere in Munich in May. Ferneyhough's subject is Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish writer who committed suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis and who subsequently became an intellectual icon for the post-war German left. Refusing to describe Shadowtime as an opera, Ferneyhough calls it "a theatrical representation of the afterlife of Walter Benjamin's ideas". This sounds deadly, though the music is anything but.

The Tableaux Vivants essentially link Benjamin with other inter-war Austro-German artists whose work was proscribed by the Nazis. Poems by seven of Benjamin's favourite writers are declaimed sprechstimme (between speaking and singing) by a narrator (here, Roderick Williams) after the fashion of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire over sparsely beautiful textures that flow from one instrumental section to another. At one point a clarinet begins to pick out the basic note row of Berg's Lulu.

Time alone will tell whether this can work as music theatre, but the score has a lucid immediacy that sets it apart from other Ferneyhough pieces we heard during the course of the day - the austere Incipits and the clamorous, Piranesi-inspired Carceri d'Invenzione 1. The sensuality that Ferneyhough's music occasionally lacks was supplied by pieces by other composers, most notably Morgan Hayes's Dark Room - a sexy, very operatic clarinet concerto - and Dai Fujikura's Fifth Station, a ferocious sequence of dialogues for an on-stage cellist and instrumentalists placed around the auditorium. Under Martyn Brabbins, the London Sinfonietta played with tremendous clarity and brilliance.