Proms 2014: Behzad Ranjbaran – Seemorgh – The Sunrise (European Première) & Jörg Widmann – Flûte en suite & Teufel Amor (UK Premières)

Despite BBC Television’s astonishingly stupid recent efforts to reinforce this myopic dogma, new music does not and never has existed in a hermetically sealed, separate space, set apart from the entirety of music that has gone before it. Composers might sometimes wish it did (echoing Beckett’s “All that goes before forget”), but it’s a moot point; audiences—especially Proms audiences—cannot fail to approach contemporary music saturated with the knowledge and memories of a myriad earlier musical experiences, classical or otherwise. Excising new works from the BBC’s television broadcasts of Proms concerts isn’t merely a craven act of crowd-pleasing complaisance, treating music as little more than an emollient unction with which one can unthinkingly unwind, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the interconnected nature and context of the entirety of music. Composers squirm when you ask them about influences, but they’re there, sometimes very obviously so, and two of the most recent Proms premières, from Behzad Ranjbaran & Jörg Widmann, could hardly have made their earlier points of inspiration more clear.

However, there’s a difference between inspiration and imitation, and in the case of Ranjbaran, a response to his piece depends entirely on one’s feelings about such things as pastiche and the importance of originality. Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery or merely proof positive of a paucity of independent thought? Compositionally, Behzad Ranjbaran clearly has a great deal to say; The Sunrise, receiving its first European performance by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Han-Na Chang, is the third and final movement of a larger work, Seemorgh, which is in turn part of an even larger ‘Persian Trilogy’. The inspiration for all of it is the Shahnameh, the longest epic poem ever written, with The Sunrise focussing on “the sight of the long, white-haired Zaal [a legendary Persian warrior] riding on the fabulously colorful Seemorgh [a mythological bird], circling the mountain”. All very stirring & inspiring—it’s just a shame, then, that every bit of Ranjbaran’s music is a total imitation of John Williams’ film music, with blatant rips from both Star Wars and Indiana Jones. That doesn’t make The Sunrise unpleasant to listen to, as such, just utterly pointless, and Ranjbaran’s efforts can only be regarded as entirely redundant. (For an immeasurably more meaningful engagement with the same mythology, listen to Raphaël Cendo’s amazing Rokh I, performed at Huddersfield last year.)

Jörg Widmann, by contrast, used an assortment of rudiments from Baroque music as the springboard for his flute concerto Flûte en suite, composed for and performed last Sunday by the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal flautist, Joshua Smith. Despite the heavily compartmentalised structure of the piece (which is cast in no fewer than eight relatively short movements), Widmann’s music establishes and explores a surprisingly deep soundworld. Its opening notes—the solo flute lost in a lovely low melody which gradually acquires companions—exhibit an overt pensive quality, which becomes the work’s most pervasive characteristic. In the first movement it’s made eerie through brief, strange appearances from muted brass and string harmonics, but in the second, Widmann turns descending/ascending basslines into Shepard Tone-esque never-ending sequences. Separated into low and high registers respectively, there’s a beautifully simple sense of emotional ‘flexing’, juxtaposing melancholy and optimism, yet at the same time somewhat aloof through the use of such an obvious process. But again, Widmann gives the material a menacing, supernatural twist at the end when the brass trigger a low bass drone and bass drum thwacks. Although segmented, there’s a strong sense of continuity between the movements, each to some extent appearing to begin from where the previous one ended. The fourth movement is the first to tease its Baroque roots to the surface—or, perhaps more accurately, putting them in a blender—but despite being a farrago the effect is far from amusing, sounding more disorienting than anything else. The exquisitely lyrical fifth and leftfield sixth movements bring beauty and even more strangeness to the mood, culminating in a lengthy cadenza that’s initially surprisingly sober. It becomes a flight of fancy, though, leading into the obvious musical joke of a final movement, mucking around with the Badinerie from J. S. Bach’s Suite No. 2 in B minor. It’s definitely fun, but i’m left wondering whether this movement ultimately breaks the spell, or even the piece. Flûte en suite works best when it’s alluding rather than playing with broken quotations, yet it’s still a work of impressive depth and power.

Widmann’s second Proms première, Teufel Amor, also performed by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, was even deeper and more powerful. Gone was the obvious clarity, the compartmentalisations, the overt allusions and the oblique playfulness of Flûte en suite; Teufel Amor is serious, convoluted, confusing, passionate—and one of the finest pieces of contemporary music i’ve ever heard at the Proms. It’s also one of the most demanding, and is therefore perhaps the perfect case in point for why the BBC got it so staggeringly wrong, as captured in this brilliantly idiotic bit of corporate flannel, regurgitated by an anonymous “BBC spokeswoman”:

…the Proms team and the commissioning editor have to bear in mind the audience and that newer works are often less familiar to them.

How, then, will audiences become familiar with them if the BBC won’t have the courage to give these pieces exposure in the first place? Teufel Amor is a piece with which i was completely unfamiliar, and it’s true to say that, at first, i felt lost in the music’s unique tone and sense of direction. Widmann makes it clear at the outset that this is difficult subject matter, the work beginning de profundis, emanating from the trombone, tuba and contrabassoon’s lowest registers, in a series of heavy, portentous lines that don’t so much flow as heave themselves along. The music slowly puts on weight and gains solidity, but becomes halting, falling into surges that feel unstable and volatile, a quality that permeates pretty much everything that follows. And this is no small challenge for a listener, seeking to gain purchase onto its unpredictable surface, let alone getting at what lies beneath. But slowly, the music’s relationship to its title (translated here as “Devil Cupid”) somehow makes increasing amounts of sense even as its unfolding seems no less incomprehensible. Independent strands develop and seemingly cancel each other out in the quest for attention (brass, woodwind, strings and percussion all going head to head); layers of material get piled up into immense cliff faces of musical fabric dragging one’s focus all over the place—this is hard work, even more so in conjunction with Widmann’s way of hinting at what’s coming next only then to head somewhere entirely different. It’s counterintuitive, but this is precisely why the BBC should allow audiences the opportunity to grapple with new and unfamiliar music. Eventually, i realised this piece was hitting home without me necessarily feeling i had ‘grasped’ it. There’s so much detail in Teufel Amor that that response is perhaps inevitable, but the realisation that i was being confronted by a large-scale work that makes precisely no concessions to what i expect or want to hear yet at the same time obviously overflows with the most heartfelt wallops of wrangled and elated emotion, was mesmerising and very moving. Does Teufel Amor make sense? Does love make sense?

Behzad Ranjbaran – Seemorgh – The Sunrise (European Première)

FLAC [45Mb]

Programme note
The three movements of Seemorgh are inspired by the three natural elements of the legend of Seemorgh: the mountain, the moonlight, and the sunrise, respectively. Having spent many days and nights on Mount Alborz in my formative years, I have developed a special affinity for the natural setting of the story. It is hard not to be inspired by the splendid images of young Zaal’s encounters with the gigantic Seemorgh and her fledglings under the moonlight at the peak of the mountain. The sight of the long, white-haired Zaal riding on the fabulously colorful Seemorgh, circling the mountain at sunrise, must have been thrilling! One only hopes that at the climaxes of each movement, the spirit of Seemorgh is invoked.

In the final movement, The Sunrise, the main theme is based on the opening theme of the first movement. The movement begins with a hush of drums in which it gradually builds up with the thematic fragments to a heroic statement of the main theme by the horns. In fact this heroic statement is juxtaposed with the mysterious and introverted nature of the opening of the first movement. A three-bar rhythmic pattern, introduced in the first movement, brings this movement to a massive climax. It gradually dies down to a soft section, reminiscent of the second movement. From this point onward, the rhythmic pattern repeats every three bars to the end. The use of this rhythmic pattern is similar to isorhythms of the middle ages. The final repetition of the rhythmic pattern by the whole orchestra brings this exciting and virtuosic movement to a euphoric end.

—Behzad Ranjbaran

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Behzad Ranjbaran – Seemorgh – The Sunrise
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Jörg Widmann – Flûte en suite (UK Première)

FLAC [114Mb]
PDF Perusal Score [7Mb]
(can also be viewed here)

Programme note
This ‚Suite’ is not one of my ‘epic’ instrumental concertos such as the concertos for cello, violin or oboe, but a substantially smaller-structured series of dance forms arranged into a suite. Sunken worlds suddenly emerge here, only to reach the surface, hover in dangerously distorted fashion and then sink back to the bottom.
Almost every individual movement allots the solo flute a specific tonal colouring and an instrumental group from the orchestra: in the opening Allemande, the flutes of the orchestra (including alto and bass flute and later also piccolo to include the entire flute family); the string section in the Sarabande; in both chorales (extremely muted in the first and brutalist in the second), the brass etc.; and it is only in the concluding Badinerie that all orchestral groups are combined, although they are terraced in the Baroque style, one following another, seldom all playing simultaneously.
This permits the flute to remain the provider of all impulses; it attaches itself to the wide variety of instrumental colours, becomes suffused with these colours and thereby shines in different lights – acerbic, pale and radiant. This first performance marks the conclusion of my two-year residence with the Cleveland Orchestra. The immense versatility of this fine body of sound (which is indeed treated as such with the sum of its parts) and the exciting dark timbre of its principal flautist Joshua Smith have to a great extent determined the form and tonal character of my Flûte en suite.

—Jörg Widmann

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Jörg Widmann – Flûte en suite
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Jörg Widmann – Teufel Amor (UK Première)

FLAC [134Mb]
PDF Perusal Score [15Mb]
(can also be viewed here)

Programme note
After the rejection of his drama Fiesco in Mannheim, Schiller offered his poem Teufel Amor to a bookseller in Frankfurt for 25 guilders. As the bookseller only offered him 18 guilders for the poem, ‘[Schiller] preferred to remain destitute rather than wasting his poetry on a skinflint who was unappreciative of his artistry’ (Gustav Schwab) and took his poem away with him. Only a tiny scrap of this poem has survived – albeit an exceedingly poetic and also musical fragment:

Süßer Amor, verweile / Im melodischen Flug
[Sweet Amor, remain in melodic flight]

A movement as a state of being, and a state of being as movement: an apparently contradictory pair, just like the title of the poem, Teufel Amor. Love however contains more contradictions than anything else in the world, epitomising the extremes of heaven and hell, pleasure and suffering, paradise and [ ]snake-pit. Whoever has been touched by the arrow of love is at the same time a human wounded by an arrow. My imagination was fired by Schiller’s fragment; his conception of the flight of Amor as the heights and depths of a melodic progression inspired me to compose a symphonic hymnos which praises the marvels of love – even in its devilish incarnation.

—Jörg Widmann

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Jörg Widmann – Teufel Amor
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