Sam Hayden: Substratum; Mozart; Messiaen: Un sourire; Stravinsky: Violin Concerto


Barbican Hall, 10 December 2008 4 stars

Gil ShahamIt is striking that the world premiere of Hayden's Substratum should be placed at the opening of the evening's concert: world premieres are usually safely embedded in the middle of the concert program. This is, partly, to buffer up the uncertainty of the reception of a new piece with a few numbers that are tried-and-tested. Nor is Hayden's music one that makes many concessions to its audience – one only needed to glance at the programme notes to diagnose a unmistakeable symptoms of this in the expressions 'highly formalist' and 'new complexity'. The music opens with the violent crash of the full orchestra, topped by shrieking piccolos, and hits one like a punch in the stomach. After the attack, a composed-out resonance of low strings and brass lingers. It is a striking sound indeed , but alas, it quickly loses its oomph as it becomes increasingly clear that Hayden intends to use this contrast again and again until the very end of the piece.

The shrivelled up timbric counterpoint of the outbursts bears a striking resemblance to Stockhausen's Gruppen of 1955-7, leaving no doubt as to what 'complexity' Hayden means to make 'new'. However, the moments of stasis and homophony (the resonance, and one suspects, substratum of the work) grow into splendid sonorities as the piece progresses; particularly remarkable is Hayden's use of quarter-tones in his brass and string chords, giving the homophony a slippery quality that made one feel startled and uneasy – which is precisely the agenda of modernist music.

One can hardly imagine a more contrasting piece to Hayden's than Mozart's quaint Violin Concerto in D major. It is striking just how admirably the young Mozart that wrote this rose to the challenges of the instrumental combination: since the orchestra was itself mostly made up of strings, he had to carefully balance the soloist entries. Thus the concerto takes the form of a playful dialogue between the orchestra and the violin, the soloist often rising above its orchestral accompaniment with arching phrases of the most exquisite lyricism.

Gil Shaham seemed to be the embodiment of its own violin part: whenever not playing he listened to the orchestra with unselfconscious delight, and picked up his violin gingerly – even for the virtuosic cadenzas – like a child about to ask if he can play, too. It was remarkable to watch David Robertson conduct this work. His stiff arm gestures during Hayden's piece gave an impression which his conducting of Mozart dismantled altogether. He and Shaham clearly have an uncommon chemistry on-stage, and the energy released by their obvious enjoyment of the performance was infectious.

Messiaen's Un Sourire may seem to fit into the programme in a somewhat contrived way. While it was written for the bicentenary of Mozart's death – thus establishing a link with the previous piece – its function in the overall design is unclear. This problem is fixed once we hear the piece: the alternation of activity and stasis clearly echoes Hayden's Substratum, although Messiaen didn't care much for formalism, but instead opted for rich harmony, sharp rhythm and ritualistic repetition. The outline of the music is one of interpolation of a hushed homophony of low strings and long, winding melodies oboe and clarinet—beautifully played in the performance – with a combination of brass, woodwind and pitched percussions in quick, fanfare- like bursts. The duration of ten minutes, remarkably short for a Messiaen orchestral piece, is optimal in view of the piece's repetitive structure, which achieves its effect of incantation also thanks to Robertson's able balancing of the two contrasting sonorities.

The Stravinsky that wrote the Violin Concerto was both the Neo-Classical Stravinsky and the Jazz-crazed Stravinsky: the combination is nothing short of spectacular, and the opening two movements fly by, so infectious is Stravinsky's perverse laughter. Fanfares, wonky waltzes and mischievous ragtime rub shoulders with the baroque flavour of the third movement, where the characteristic turn figure that informs all the references to dance is inverted into the solemn gesture of a French Overture. The fourth movement closes the concerto with a bang, resuming the demonic dances of the first and second movements. Shaham's vibrant playing bringing us right back to the cursed violin of the Histoire du Soldat, while Roberston, literally dancing on his podium, turns the brass-heavy orchestra into just the grotesque creature it is meant to be.

With a chemistry such as Robertson and Shaham's one wishes there had been only violin concertos in the programme. But on reflection perhaps the contrast with the less inspired performances made the outstanding moments stand out all the more. The Stravinsky finale would have electrified any concert, and the imaginative connections established in the programme were a joy to experience as the concert unfolded. It was a memorable evening.

By Delia Casadei

Photo credit: Boyd Hagen