A few hours after the bizarre final notes of Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 4 had faded away, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra came to the Royal Albert Hall to present the Proms with a late-night performance of rather more experimental fare.
They began with one of John Cage‘s most important early works, the percussion sextet First Construction (in Metal). The word ‘construction’ couldn’t be more apt; Cage really went to town on the structure of the work, all of it based around the proportions 4 : 3 : 2 : 3 : 4. Composed in 1939, it would be another decade before Cage would begin his written dialogue with Boulez, but such scrupulous, numerically-based structures foreshadow what would become central to the French composer’s own compositional preoccupations. For all their intricacy, however, First Construction‘s structuralisations are not particularly audible, not that this militates against the work in any significant way. The instrumentation is so colourful, their deployment so brash and fanciful, that it’s simply a non-stop joy to behold, moving from passages of mechanised regularity to more rhythmically obscure material, where the pulse is harder to perceive. What’s most striking, though, is how fresh it continues to sound: 71 years young.
A few decades even younger is Cornelius Cardew‘s splendidly-titled Bun No. 1, a piece that dispenses with any percussion. While the use of only pitched instruments may suggest a more melodic compositional angle, the Webernesque opening—material rapidly passed between players—dismisses such notions. What does become immediately clear, though, is that each of the players is, to some extent, treated as a soloist, and Cardew’s textures are all the more intricate as a result. No, more than that, they’re downright complex; recognisable ideas, even motifs, are in short supply, Bun No. 1 being among the most obtuse, even impenetrable, music heard in any of this Proms season’s premières. Gestures, gestures, everywhere; and while this keeps the listener at something of a distance—the piece has an aloof, elevated tone—the sheer earnestness of Cardew’s compositional manner is compelling, inviting a sense of trust in the music. It’s paradoxical really, to feel, on the one hand, engaged and fascinated at each passing sound-shape, and yet equally to feel as though one is separated, watching from afar something important but (in part at least) incomprehensible taking place. Despite being a “bun” (and Calum McDonald’s fine programme note elaborates this title), Cardew hands us precisely nothing on a plate; i, for one, welcome the paradox and the difficulty.
Cardew’s most well-known pupil, Howard Skempton, is represented by his most well-known work, Lento. My usual practice, when reviewing these concerts, is to jot down notes and ideas while listening, but with this piece, i was forced—as i have been, i think, every time i’ve heard it—to stop and just listen. It’s so difficult to find words to do justice to Lento; Skempton’s remarkable achievement is not simply in creating a piece that’s beautiful (it is beautiful, incredibly so), but in the perfectly balanced way one chord follows another, shifting between minor and major inflections. The four brief episodes that interject only enhance the sense of unity, the first of which, to my mind, being the most delicious, with gorgeously rich deep brass and bassoons. Ultimately, not one note sounds out of place here, and that Skempton is able to achieve this through numerous cycling repetitions of just a few simple ideas, is truly astonishing.
Quite how it’s taken the final piece in the concert, Morton Feldman‘s Piano and Orchestra, 35 years to be heard in London is beyond me, although English ears are perhaps traditionally not the most receptive to Feldman’s acute kind of (non-religious) mysticism. Tonight, though, there was rapt attention as John Tilbury guided the solo part through the work’s series of soft, strange episodes. While any kind of conventional concerto set-up is absent from Feldman’s discourse, the piano is nonetheless unmistakably distinct from the orchestra, which often congregates its forces into dense chords and clusters; there’s a strong sense of one versus many, with neither seeming to predominate—indeed, neither seeks to predominate; there’s no overt opposition or conflict between the two. There is tension, though, and a welter of other emotions are inexorably stirred at such evocative but spare material; Feldman’s restraint doesn’t change the fact there’s a lot to take in, in terms of allusive power and weight of expression. Individual notes, a gesture, a short crescendoing cluster: each of these becomes hugely important for the brief time it sounds, which no doubt explains why Feldman’s music, regardless of the work’s duration, is—in the very best way—so demanding, so draining.