Contemporary Music at the Gare du Nord in Basel

1 February: Anna Spina | 8 Febrauary: Ensemble Phoenix

Gare du Nord, 14 February 2009 4 stars3 stars

Anna SpinaBasel's Gare du Nord plays host to a busy programme of music, ranging from contemporary to jazz, offering a stage to leading national and international ensembles and performers.

The venue is located in the city's Badischer Bahnhof railway station – hence the name. This makes for a strange congruence of scenes on one's way in to catch a show, transients go past this way and that, one feeling like something of a transient oneself, taking shelter for the evening in a strange setting around some unusual music. The venue is in the Northwestern corner of the station, with a comfortable bar in front. The auditorium is well laid out, with wooden panelling, dim-lit chandeliers, and a wall forming an arc behind the audience's seating area, mirroring another behind the stage.

The second of February saw a visit from Swiss violist-violinist Anna Spina, performing a solo programme she is currently touring Switzerland and Germany with, entitled Poussiers d'etiole. Spina has a good track record in the contemporary field, having studied in her home country (in Zurich and Bern) as well as in Paris with Gareth Knox and with George Aperghis in Berlin. The concert, then, was one to look forward to.

In the wait after the audience had taken their seats I thought about the form of such solo recitals, an audience of mutual strangers staring down upon a solitary performer, having to engage in a self-exploration and monologue to which a shady crowd is privy and judge. The artificial setting of the concert space, low lights and wooden walls and sacral atmosphere, enhances this feeling, and in some respect you are anxious for the individual laid out to go through this ritual.

Any such feeling on the night was quickly dispelled by Spina upon her entry, with the lights falling on her powerful presence. She opened the concert with George Aperghis's Photomaton-Commentaires. This inventive work uses live video relay along with viola and vocalising for a theatrical façade that is full-on and surprising. The performer begins behind a partition that is placed on the stage, a video screen on the front of it conveying what is happening behind. The piece burst into the awaiting silence like a jack in the box, a bizarre and delirious thrill, an impressive start to the night. The video relay scanned the anatomy of the viola in obscured close-up, the camera tracing its contours and extent while the performer gave a narrative. This scene was followed by one with Spina's face in a shadowed dialogue with a mask, both in profile, the exchange spoken by the performer with the help of a little loudspeaker. After this the performer interacted with the façade as she emerged from over the partition and played with the still running live video screen, reaching down to it with her bow. And the piece continued like this for its duration, the performer playing with her unattainable image, at once both close and distant, a threatening silhouette and a face-full of clingfilm featuring as the work progressed along a humorous course.

George AperghisThe second piece was Heinz Holliger's Trema for solo viola. No theatrics this time, or at least none stipulated by the score. Spina's performance of the piece was dramatic enough though – all raging double-stops and drones, shuddering arpeggios and tremolandi, as nearby notes clashed off each other and meeting with singing open strings. The conflict of dualities in sounded notes was reflected well in the concentrated poise of the performer, rocking back and forth as if yanked around on strings by the music. Spina tackled the work head-on and came up trumps. The relation of performer and image to music also kept bubbling below the surface.

The first half closed with Manos Tsangaros's Tmesis. The venue's lighting itself came into the spotlight here for a piece in two parts. The first saw Spina play a short passage from within a suddenly fallen pitch-darkness. Then for the second she moved to another part the stage, running lights over the strings of the viola with the resultant scrapes and scratches taking on strange auditory forms when left to blanket darkness to convey them to the audience. Little red glimmers and white shining dots came from the direction of the performer, before the lights went on again for the end of the piece and the interval. Such notions of stage and performer were in question throughout Spina's excellent programme and it made for an invigorating evening of music.

Having said that, however, it must be noted that the second half was not as good as the first. It opened well though with a storming rendition of Sciarrino's Tre notturni brillanti. Although someway interrupted by a drunk who had somehow wandered into the venue (which must have been strange for him), and who wandered back out again before the third movement, the performance was exemplary, although some of the glissandi early on weren't articulated as well as they might have been. The piece built up to the third movement, in which bow brushes against the strings and flashing harmonics made for a well-worked climax.

A new work by young composer Elizabeth Adams followed, Viola viola viola violá. Here live video was used again for the performer to be accompanied by three pre-recorded images of herself, along with a pre-recorded tape. While an interesting concept, it suffered from having to follow the Aperghis, with its compositional ideas less well developed than those of the earlier piece. It was still an stimulating work though, the performer having her back turned to the audience for most of its duration, swivelling around to shoot a glare at the audience a few times. After the performance the composer herself, who was in attendance, took a bow.

Spina ended the programme in a light-hearted vein, with Jürg Wyttenbach's Trois chansons violées pour une violiniste chantante. Here she sang folk-esque melodies to the accompaniment of some awry violin tones, which were sometimes supplemented by instrumental preparation in the form of a knitting needle pushed between the violin's strings. A rousing applause ended the night.

Ensemble phoenixA week later saw a visit from Basel's Ensemble Phoenix, the city's premiere contemporary music ensemble. Founded by Jürg Henneberger, who conducted them on the night (with a cast on one of his arms), they have been in existence since 1998, pursuing an adventurous and admirable course of programming and performance.

The first piece was a recent work from British-born, Berlin-based composer Rebecca Saunders. a visible trace, for eleven soloists, continues the composer's exploration of the musical image and the place of intersection between music and the imaginary. The programme note accompanying the piece contained an epigraph each from Beckett and Calvino, the former of which is worth repeating, describing as it does the music's essence in a way this reviewer cannot: 'It is the thing in itself, isolated from all other things. Born out of the necessity to see it, and the need to see for seeing's sake. The motionless in emptiness, that is, at last, the visible thing, the pure object…'. The Calvino quote likewise spoke of a 'frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.'

The piece struck up, tracing the lines of a sound object that was itself something of a trace, a slow elongated note beginning on one instrument and then continuing on to another, moving from viola to trombone, describing a swell that shifted across the ensemble. The attention to instrumental detail was impressive, timbral interplay accounting for a lot of what was of interest formally. As the piece progressed the pace picked up, the ululations occurring more frequently now and with more instruments involved, an element of disorder being introduced into the process enacted by the players. The hypnotic effect was such that you began to wonder what exactly was the purpose of the players sitting stoney-faced on the stage, as seen in the light of the meaning of the music. Some looked quite bored, so maybe they were wondering something similar. The piece saw that 'background' element of timbre brought to the fore, and didn't have any rhetorical flourishes or grandiloquent solo passages. Combinations within the ensemble certainly stood out, for example piccolo and double bass. Mood was everything though, and the overall mood was dark, the music reminiscent in some way of Scelsi, though still entirely Saunders' own. Although some semblance of melody or rhythmic activity would indeed have been welcome in order to break up the piece's longish duration, Saunders impressed here as usual and is certainly a promising composer. One eagerly looks forward to her future work. a visible trace was eventually dragged off the stage into silence, to make way for the next two pieces on the bill.

While waiting for the stage to be set up for the next piece – Xenakis's Palimpsest – I realised that the room in which we were sat must previously have been a waiting room of the train station (a big clock on the wall above the exit was the giveaway). This space then itself was something of a palimpsest for all the hours and transients it had previously housed, who had been and still were caught up in the middle of no particular place, similar to us waiting and cut out from normal time. At this point though I realized I was misremembering a section from Sebald's Austerlitz.

Xenakis (Photo: Parker Peters)

Still in pursuit of significances (if you're interested in the reviewer's thought process), I thought about the significance of the number eleven for the soon-to-ensue piece, for which there is called eleven players. Ten was the Tetractys of the Pythagoreans, their cosmic principle, so does eleven go a bit further than this? But I suppose just because Xenakis is involved with numbers doesn't stretch his wit or his will to numerology. A false inference on my part. Still, you have to amuse yourself somehow.

The piece itself made for an enjoyable contrast with the previous work, with more meat in the parts for the players. It was infinitely more rhythmic than the Saunders. Pianist Manuel Bärtsch stood out as he tackled the bizarre scales of Xenakis' invention with which the piece begins. The opening figure stood out luminously, the complex polyphonic cross-rhythms standing out distinct to the ear. There is something of a demented jazz-like quality to the work and it is certainly brighter (though not less dissonant) than some of Xenakis' other scores. The main percussion and piano both had solo turns which then opened out to the ensemble, shards of sound shot out towards them which rattled about in an ensemble shoring up their consequence in frantic scales and repeated, Ligeti-esque mechanistic stabs. The cumulative ensemble playing was superb. As the piece built towards climax it seemed as if we were heading towards an apocalypse of some sort, but at least we would be get there by dissolving in convulsive shape throwing. The players slowed down into dredged chords, performed in warped tutti by the ensemble as one big instrument. Percussionist Daniel Buess came to the fore towards the end with bombastic playing – sometimes indeed drowning out the rest. This first half of the concert, then, made for a good pairing of works.

The same was not to be said for the second half unfortunately, which was taken up by Jorge López's Blue Cliffs. This multi-movement piece came across blurred and indistinct, offering an orthodox atonal language in the articulation of a continuous discourse that saw most of the ensemble in use most of the time. The care towards individual sonorities which was in evidence in Saunders' piece was here conspicuous by its absence. The players were out in full, and this time the ensemble was bolstered in the low end by two bass clarinets as well as a contrabass clarinet and a contrabassoon. The potentially exciting sonority this promised was rarely realized however, and the writing overall was disappointing. At the same time the performances were excellent, the players fully engaged by a focussed Henneberger. You could see some of them break into a sweat as they visibly gave it their all. Standouts in particular were cellist Martin Jagi, flautist (doubling piccolo) Christoph Bösch and violist Patrick Jüdt. But although they seemed to relish the vicissitudes of the piece, with registral shades dispersed in sections of the ensemble – string quintet, high winds, bass instruments – it was a piece which overall didn't come together. Some of the sections were quite good individually and there was more coherence towards the end, with a good last couple of sections. If nothing else it made a vehicle for the talent of the ensemble, of which we can look forward to hearing more.

By Liam Cagney

Photo Credits for Xenakis: Parker Peters


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CD Review: The SWR Symphony and Chorus led by Hans Zender play works by Rebecca Saunders (Kairos)
CD Review: Orchestral works by Salvatore Sciarrino (Kairos)
Review of new works commisioned for the London Sinfonietta's 40th Anniversary
CD review: Daniel Grossman plays Xenakis keyboard works via MIDI (NEOS)