MaerzMusik 2010 in Berlin

The John Butcher Group; Quartetto Prometeo; Klangforum Vienna/ Beat Furrer, et al

Volksbühne and Sophienkirche, Berlin, 24 March 20105 stars

The John Butcher GroupMaerzmusik, part of the Berlin Festspiele, is now in its ninth year. Under the artistic directorship of Matthias Osterwold, it covers the gamut of contemporary musical styles, from sound art to interactive installations, from music theatre to opera, and from intimate string quartets to cavernous orchestral music, taking in several premieres along the way.

The theme of this year's festival, UTOPIA [LOST], is concerned with the washing away of the idea of utopia in recent times by the all-engulfing tide of calculative thought. It is a timely theme, of course, and a fitting one for a new music festival. Music has always played the role of lure, presenting something suggested rather than stated, a form that is absent by its very presence; and it is in precisely these respects that music is of value to us: in being inaccessible to the boundless rapacity of the times, always set aside as if a porthole in the hull of a ship, it opens up for us otherwise unseeable vistas.

In his introductory note to the festival, Osterwald speaks of MaerzMusik as presenting, 'an exciting journey – not entirely without risk – to the [Lost] Islands of Musical Utopia where music is to be observed as the force field of the new, the unheard, the unexplored and of transgression.' These qualities, and the sense of journey, were very much in evidence on Saturday night at the first event I attended, the John Butcher Group performing their work somethingtobesaid.

Commissioned in 2008 by the Huddersfield Festival, somethingtobesaid brings together an ensemble of saxophone (Butcher), piano (Chris Burn), harp (Clare Cooper), double bass (John Edwards), percussion (Gino Robair), turntables (dieb 12) and vintage analogue synthesizer (Thomas Lehn), for a mind-bending musical vector along a welter of weird sounds and timbral spaces. One would say it's more than the sum of its parts were it not for the fact that that's exactly what it isn't – in collecting the influences of the musicians exactly in their own particular qualities, the piece tears this way and that for an hour or so through a number of distinct sections, where everything may be necessary but nothing is subsumed.

There was nothing particularly auspicious about the work's opening, a simple oscillating drone on the synth, the drone being the seed whose flower can open into any number of genres. Soon the saxophone and double bass entered in gangly unison, signalling the start of the first section. At times the music's character, though coming from the free improvisation background of its composer (Butcher) and players, was suggestive of Xenakis: motions and trajectories of sound where the exact identity of each pitched or unpitched sound is less important than the overall dynamic gesture. And in the work's overall form of distinct chained sections, there was too a suggestion of Ligeti's Atmosphères. But this is to ignore the originality of somethingtobesaid and the group, which made for a truly exciting concert. What sounded loudest of all in my ears after it had finished was the collective ethos here brought out to shine, contrasting with the egotism commonly found in our idea of the composer.

Quartetto PrometeoThis performance took place in the Sonic Arts Lounge, which is part of the Volksbühne, previously the GDR’s East Berlin Arts centre. A little distance away is the Sophienkirche, an impressive Lutheran church which the next day, on a drizzly sunny Sunday afternoon, hosted a string quartet concert by the Quartetto Prometeo.

The opening work, with a full-to-capacity congregation, and with the performers dominated by a large cross behind them above the altar, was Scelsi's fourth string quartet. This turned out to be an inspired piece of programming. Emphasising Prometeo's Italian heritage, its other purpose on the face of things was to serve as a brief opener – it's only around twelve minutes long – and thus a manageable introduction to the world of contemporary classical music for those who were attending the concert through curiosity about the MaerzMusik festival rather than for any particular love of contemporary music. Certainly a few in attendance were taken by surprise, and needless to say there was a smattering of early exits.

The work itself was exquisitely performed, in the sense that it was rendered lucid and sumptuous, its form taking precedence over its drama. The overwhelming impression was of a fluid, shifting sound object, perhaps like an auditory tesseract, carefully constructed and displayed in its emergence by the counterpoint of the four players. The work's aspect of harsh and even violent rending was here not stressed, and the result was a slightly detached view of Scelsi's genius, which in dissolving the traditional focus of the tradition on pitch and on the note allows the emergence of something else to take place.

Following this was Barbara Monk Feldman's Desert Space, with the composer herself listening on. A vibrato motif was coupled with atmospheric harmonics to effectively conjure up the ecology of the title. Perhaps a little too effectively though, as the work progressed from lushness in the first half to aridity in the second, and was a little too long (for hearing in a church with hard bench seats in any case). There was a curious reminiscence in the work's second half to the composer's late husband Morton Feldman's first sting quartet.

After the interval, Kurtag's 6 Moments musicaux op. 44 contrasted greatly with what had preceded, all pith and backwards glances to the tradition, each of the movements brief and with a distinct character. Closing proceedings and bookending the programme with another Italian work, twinning the Italian work that had opened things, Sciarrino's eighth string quartet, composed last year, received its German premiere with the composer himself in attendance. This concert gave vent to Quartetto Prometeo's technical excellence and sense of programming creativity, and it will be interesting to see how the Arditti Quartet’s concert later in the week compares with it.

Luci mie traditriciA quick walk down the street and we were back at the Volksbühne for Sciarrino's opera Luci mie traditrici, which took place in the grand theatre hall. Based on the infamous tale of the composer Gesualdo's jealous murder of his wife and her lover, it is among many other things a solid contribution to the opera repertoire, albeit one that will have to wait some time before being taken up with wide enthusiasm.

This production previously ran at Salzburg, and is from the artistic direction of Rebecca Horn. It is an entirely successful production, full of grace and understatement, balancing out the dread and undercurrent of violence in the music and drama – which after a full hour of deafening whispers explodes outwards suddenly, and briefly, in the denouement – with a massive white paint-flecked background projection, a minimal set and eye-catching classic period costume. Nothing about it could really be faulted. Beat Furrer's conducting was impeccable, and as well as directing the players (the Klangforum Vienna) he cued the entrances of the singers, whose ability to follow the score without any pulse, or indeed any whiff of tangible musical gesture from the band, was as startling as it was pleasing to witness.

Mezzo Anna Radziejewska, counter-tenor Kai Wessel, tenor Simon Jaunin and especially baritone Otto Katzameier, were brilliant throughout. The vocal lines of the dueting lovers lilted bizarrely over and back; and since this listener doesn’t understand Italian, and since there were no sur-titles, the impression received was of an extended mime, a musical one, the singing voices appearing like birdsong, each voice imitating the other, taking up the other's rhythmic babble and repeating it back a little changed. And in fact we were graced with the appearance of a real bird, a falcon no less, at the back of the stage during one of the scenes, sitting on a falconer’s glove, observing what was happening, occasionally fluttering its wings. Although it was the only living being onstage who wasn't acting, this bird itself in its mere presence became something like a drama, compulsive to watch for the viewer.

MaerzMusik continues until 28 March. Our second report from the festival will be early next week.

By Liam Cagney

Photo credits: John Butcher, Quartetto Prometeo, MaerzMusik

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AgoraRelated articles:

CD Review: Works by Giancinto Scelsi (Neos)
CD Review: Orchestral works by Salvatore Sciarrino (Kairos)
Concert Review: IRCAM Paris's Agora festival 2009