It’s Valentine’s Day, so i’m going to extend the mood through a long weekend with three pieces that each provide a uniquely twisted reflection on the subject of romance. First is one of the more fascinating duets i’ve heard in recent years, Amor for flute and oboe by the Australian composer John Rodgers. The piece is taken from his larger work ‘Inferno’ (a commission from the Adelaide Festival and ELISION), described by Rodgers as a “musico/theatrical translation of Dante’s vision of hell”. The subject matter of Amor is to be found very early in Dante’s work, in the region he described as ‘upper hell’, specifically its second circle; here, Dante locates the Lustful, whose punishment consists of being pummelled for eternity by an immense wind. A whole host of famous lovers—including Dido, Helen, Paris and Achilles—are found here, but Dante’s attention (in one of the most famous scenes of the entire Divine Comedy) centres on the couple of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo. Their illicit love affair undermined Francesca’s (politically-motivated) marriage to Paolo’s brother Giovanni Malatesta; Giovanni was widely nicknamed ‘the lame’, which possibly accounts for Francesca’s roving eye—yet the paramours’ pleasure was short-lived, as after a few years Giovanni murdered them both.
Rodgers’ brief depiction of them seems less a realisation of their hell-bound plight (which is largely spent imploring Dante’s eponymous pilgrim to feel pity for them—and which furthermore has implications that the couple now feel distaste for one another, their being together being an integral part of their punishment) than of their passionate affair. Either way, the music is vividly audacious, the two instruments caught up in rapture through a complex and heady series of outpourings that—perhaps symbolically—are almost violently reckless. Phrases, although wildly differentiated, feel shared and owned by them both; many of them begin together, and there’s no little amount of imitation between the players. However, there’s an ever-present sense of extremity, of things being pushed too far, resulting in pitches that feel strained and forced, melodic lines militated against by multiphonics and percussive key slaps, dissolving in an array of noises and snuffles. It’s worth bearing in mind Rodgers’ stated aim of depicting “the perversion of nature”; there’s no doubting the ardour of the couple’s feelings yet their zeal is entirely animalistic. Maybe there’s a parallel connotation here, a sense of keening that relates more directly to the context in which Francesca and Paolo find themselves in Dante’s imagination. However one hears it, though, it’s difficult to read the title Amor as anything more than optimistic.
It’s a superbly imaginative work, the element of theatre even extending to the physical act of inserting the flute’s bell (one hesitates—but only just—to refer to it as the bell end) into the corresponding orifice of the oboe, a coupling that causes the entire musical fabric to splinter and rip itself from the inside out. Fantastical stuff, and in this performance from the 2011 City of London Festival, it’s given a whirlwind of a performance by flautist Richard Craig and oboist Peter Veale.