Proms Saturday Matinee 4: Goehr, Knussen and Bainbridge

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Daniel Jaffé

Daniel Jaffé
Daniel Jaffé
, Updated 29th August 2012

A triple birthday celebration

London’s Cadogan Hall – airy and with tasteful classical light brown and beige décor – is a very pleasant place to be on a hot, sweltering afternoon. Last Saturday it was nearly full for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s celebration of the birthdays of Alexander Goehr (80 this year) and Oliver Knussen and Simon Bainbridge (both 60). Most keenly anticipated was the world premiere of Bainbridge’s BBC commissioned The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Goehr’s …a musical offering (J.S.B. 1985)…, originally commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival to celebrate Bach’s 300th anniversary, offered Bach through unusual distortions: sometimes of Schoenberg-style gauzy disintegration, or through the prism of a very 1920s line-up of piano, muted brass and the dry rattle of side drum sticks. It was perhaps not as haunting as the best of Goehr’s music, but still, it was good to see the man, as he acknowledge the applause afterwards, looking very spry for someone who had turned 80 just a week earlier.

Knussen was represented by two of his Ophelia pieces. Ophelia Dances for chamber ensemble, composed in 1975, involves fragments of Schumann and Debussy in twinkling, fluid textures which finally melt away in a celeste-driven dream. Ophelia’s Last Dance, a solo piano piece composed just two years ago, has a stronger melodic profile – not surprisingly as it features a melody originally intended but then rejected for Knussen’s Third Symphony. This theme haunted Knussen until after his wife’s death in 2003, when he finally integrated it in this piano work. Huw Watkins gave a compelling performance which brought out the piece’s stylistic homage to 19th-century Romantic piano music, luscious yet never cloying.

Like Knussen, Bainbridge is a master of instrumental colour, so perhaps it is not so surprising that he took on the challenge of encompassing the richly coloured and phantasmagorical imagination of Hieronymus Bosch’s great triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights: or rather, quartet of paintings since, as Bainbridge pointed out in the brief on-stage discussion preceding the performance, there is a fourth painting which appears when the outer panels are closed – that of ‘The Creation of the World’.

Lasting just over half an hour, Bainbridge’s work involves a chorus, two soloists – countertenor Andrew Watts and mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer – and a narrator who sets the scene, splendidly read by Samuel West. There were some striking aural ‘images’: the ‘long frozen clock’ described in John Ross’s libretto seemed to stutter into action, and the opening cries of ‘Look! Look! Look!’, sung by the London Sinfonietta Voices, were given an eerie quality.

I’m not quite sure when it happened: perhaps it was when Bosch’s central panel of ‘Earthly Delights’ was reduced to surreal dinner party chatter (‘Hildegard, would you like a cherry? They are very ripe!’). But there came a point when the enchantment of the work dissipated, finally smashed by the sudden bass drum ‘bang!’ which opened ‘The Music of Hell’ (and startled half the audience). It wasn’t just that Bainbridge’s depiction of hell was banal and obvious. Nor was it, thinking back over what I had heard, the realisation that his musical portrayal of these paintings was a mere shadow of Bosch’s fantastically vivid colours and depictions. Rather, it was the forlorn realisation that Bainbridge had set himself an exercise that was a futile and pointless from the start, a demonstration that what is achieved so brilliantly by Bosch in one medium is not necessarily something that can be translated with any advantage into another.

‘What about Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition?’, I hear you say. Well, Musorgsky was not merely making a sonic transcription of Hartmann’s paintings: through his choice and juxtaposition of a number of pictures, Musorgsky says a great deal through his music about his understanding and love of Hartmann’s sensibility, whether in the seemingly trivial ‘Tuileries’ or the poignant yet dignified ‘Con mortuis in lingua mortua’. By attempting something more straightforward, Bainbridge in fact created something utterly superfluous, all the more so when we had Bosch’s brilliant paintings reproduced, glorious colours and all, in the programmes in front of us.

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Daniel Jaffé

Daniel Jaffé
Daniel Jaffé