Gérard Grisey: Les espaces acoustiques

Paul Silverthorne; London Sinfonietta & Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble; George Benjamin

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 16 October 20085 stars

George Benjamin Photo © Michiharu OkuboAs Julian Anderson noted in his programme note, tonight's first UK performance of Les espaces acoustiques was a significant event for anyone in the country interested in contemporary music. Although completed in 1985, this work has waited some time to be tackled here in performance. Its music takes place on a grand scale, and the work is one that first announced Gérard Grisey as a figure of no small significance and in the possession of an extraordinary imagination.

The work is a cycle of six pieces, composed over an eleven year period from 1974 to 1985. Its opening is a viola solo, with the ensemble gradually expanding over the course of the cycle to the size of an orchestra of 84 players for the last two pieces. The first pieces of the cycle to be composed, Périodes and Partiels, announced at the time of their first performance the emergence of a new compositional thinking, one that has since come to have been given the moniker of spectral music (to the predictable disapproval of Grisey and Tristan Murail, the other main composer involved).

To the fore throughout the work – as the title suggests – is an exploration of sound in its different physical attributes, an exploration achieved through the innovative combination of acoustic technique and aural effect. For example, the opening of the third piece in the cycle – Partiels for 18 players – has the ensemble simulate the low E note of a trombone, by having each instrument in the ensemble playing one of the frequencies of that note's natural harmonic spectrum (those frequencies that go together to make up the character of its sound). The result, become a justly famous moment in contemporary music, is a strange and beautiful harmony, one that characterises much of the sonority of Les espaces acoustiques. It typifies Grisey's approach of 'no longer composing with notes but with sounds', an approach that, although meticulously theoretical in genesis (based partly on the data of acoustics and psychoacoustics), is instinctively understandable to the ear as producing a sonority of great depth and originality.

Gerard GriseyTonight's performance was given by the London Sinfonietta along with the Royal Academy of Music's Manson Ensemble, and was conducted by George Benjamin, with Paul Silverthorne taking on the viola part. And indeed if anyone is qualified to conduct this music – a music that requires sympathetic understanding of its aims in order to carry it off well – it is Benjamin, who previously conducted the Sinfonietta in their world premiere performance of Grisey's final work, Quatre chants pur franchir le seuil, and in their UK premiere of Le Temps et l'écume, a performance Grisey reckoned to be one of the best of his music that he had heard. In the pre-concert talk Benjamin spoke of how he had been initially become acquainted with Grisey's music as a student in Paris in the 1970s, becoming a friend of Grisey's in the later years preceding the latter's sadly passing away in 1998.

Having previously only heard this work on its CD releases by Kairos and Accord, one element that really stood out in performance was its dramatic effect, which was well captured from the beginning of the concert. To a hall packed to capacity (a rare instance in a venue this size for contemporary music) Benjamin and the players came onstage and took their places, before the lights in the hall dimmed to Silverthorne, alone far stage right under a spotlight. He began the repeated lyrical motion whose process of development provides the material of Prologue. The audience was totally engaged as the figure gradually became more complex with the piece's progression, the climax arriving in a frenzy of glissando and noise as the bow was dragged slowly and harshly across the strings over the instrument's neck.

The end of the piece saw the lights rise and Silverthorne move slowly back across the stage to join the ensemble, still intoning on his instrument as the small ensemble entered for the beginning of Périodes, led by the low double bass. A lush and static harmonic ensued, elaborating around the viola's pedalled note. Benjamin here as throughout took the piece at around the same pace as the performance on the Accord recording of the work, conducted by Pierre-André Valade. Périodes in the cycle as a whole is the first piece to introduce the radical harmony that characterises the cycle's sound world; and this impressed itself strongly coming after from the viola solo. The only point of blemish was a couple of misfires on the trombone, apart from which the piece went through smoothly. One particularly striking moment came when the clarinet led the gradual stretching and distortion of the piece's second 'stable' harmonic area, a slightly grotesque pressurising of notes performed vigorously in heightening pitches.

An amusing moment came at the end of Périodes with the dramatised retuning of the lead viola's scordatura as directed in the score. This preceded the transition into Partiels, the ensemble's notes undergoing a force of attraction which gradually led them into the sound of low trombone and double bass, setting off the synthetic chord mentioned earlier, played collectively by the ensemble. Hearing the sound of this famous chord issuing forth live, opening up in a slowly elaborate voice, was quite an experience. The piece followed through to its end, a slowing down of time, brushes sweeping drum-skins in percussion and wind players blowing through their instruments, before some of the players accompanied the final low drawn-out notes by cleaning their instruments and rustling their scores as if to pack up and leave – this dramatic effect, again directed in the score, having some of the audience laughing.

George Benjamin Photo © Michiharu OkuboComing in after the interval the performers onstage had been augmented into a formidable force, a large orchestra spanning the stage for the second half. Modulations for 33 players began with the lights unexpectedly dropping, this time leaving a sole young male percussionist at the back of the stage standing in profile, slowly spreading out his arms, a cymbal in each hand, until holding them silently aloft and suspended over his head, poised for a crash that never came (at least not from him). Suddenly the lights rose and the music itself came crashing in throughout the ensemble in disjunct order, a lot louder now through a brass-heavy ensemble also featuring hammond organ. This piece uses larger forces to blare out massive and searing chords of some complexity, building on the ideas of Partiels and building itself up to climax at the close, the orchestra gradually joining in to hammer out its final striking chords in a visceral crescendo, commanding an expanded dynamic towards clamour.

The slow, winding crescendo at the beginning of the colossal Transitoires was accompanied by more spotlight action (the producers of the show deserve some credit for their daring), the lights mostly blacking out for a reminiscence of the lone percussionist of earlier, again holding aloft his cymbals at the back of the stage, this time to a gradually expanding drone being built up by the players. The orchestra was awesome here, striking rich and giant chords that ranged across its total breadth and which were prompted by the repeated notes of a lone double bass, the orchestral mass emphatically simulating the harmonic sound of the double bass's being plucked and bowed. One really had the impression here of a work scaling the heights of anything that might previously have issued from the classical symphonic tradition and doing so in a daring and innovative way with its unique approach to harmony and process.

The closing piece, Epilogue, sees the process of the work fall into entropy. The music was whittled down once again to solo viola, playing the lyrical phrase of the work's opening. This time its appearance set off a rupture in the form, with four horns entering and playing the phrase in a distorted fashion, driving it into the silence of the work's ending in dissipation. The hall itself was silent for what seemed like a long time before Benjamin at stage front relaxed his poise and the audience burst into a loud applause. A section of the audience stood for the ovation.

This concert was a brilliant one and all involved deserve congratulation for carrying it off so well. The person I attended it with remarked that he would have sat immediately through a repeat performance and it was hard to disagree with that verdict; one was definitely left wanting more. Hopefully the concert's outstanding success will encourage more performances of Grisey's striking work here.

By Liam Cagney