Philippe Manoury: Fragments pour un portrait, Partita I

Ensemble intercontemporain/Mälkki; Kairos (KAI0012922)

10 June 2009 4 stars

ManouryWith this disc Kairos continue their near-peerless run of high quality releases that match the best contemporary music performers to the most interesting contemporary music.

In this case the focus is on the music of French composer Philippe Manoury (b.52). Manoury is a figure who takes gestural and poetic elements from the German tradition, particularly from Wagner and Stockhausen, and unites them with computer music technologies, and with inimitable touches of his own that are drawn from various literary and fine art conceptualisations of structure and time.

The composer conducted a great deal of research at IRCAM in the late eighties and early nineties, the primary yield from which was his Sonus ex machina. In this work various solo instrumentalists interact with a computer programme that plays out an electronic backdrop, but also transforms the acoustic sounds in real time according to pre-set parameters, transformations to which the performers are then expected to respond (the score sets out only a loose conception of the music).

Manoury's close links with IRCAM are confirmed in the choice of performers for this disc, the Ensemble intercontemporain. In full ensemble led by their wonderful music director Susanna Mälkki, who is on steely and precise form here, for the first piece, and then reduced to the viola player Christophe Desjardins (with the Real-Time Music Interaction research team at IRCAM assisting in pre-performance development of the technology) for the second, the ensemble (as could be expected) shine in this flinty and fecund music. The two works are relatively recent; the masterful ensemble piece Fragments pour un portrait was premiered in 1998, Partita I, for solo viola and real-time electronics that are organised along the same principles as those in the earlier Sonus had been, in 2006.

The works' most interesting aspects lie in their formal and timbral characters. Both present outwardly, with respect to their descriptive and generic titles, as cycles comprised of a series of disparate movements. But Manoury takes great pains to elide that distance. The great issue facing composers of multi-movement works, how to portray a unity across separation, how to synthesise cyclical form with single-movement integration, is tackled with great invention in this music.

Fragments is made of seven distinct movements that yet take similar sound materials as their object, looking at these materials anew each time, introducing new elements, but always shifting only in perspective and not in kind. In this strategy Manoury was inspired by Francis Bacon’s numerous variations on a portrait of Pope Innocence X by Velásquez. A rich orchestral colour runs throughout these symbiotic movements that calls to mind both the clanging metallic sonorities of Beat Furrer, and the more ornate textural strategies of Wagner and Strauss. Another Austro-German composer, Torsten Rasch, is also called to mind here, this time for the bubbling volcanoes and barely restrained exhilaration that incline this adamantine score. The music is muscular without ever being bombastic, and colourful without ever seeming limited by that colour. A thoroughly involving piece, performed with care and flavour.

Partita I maintains this singular attitude to form; its nine separate movements actually cohere as sound into one continuum of acoustic-electronic ambience. The French character is much more to the fore here, with a dreamy, meditative, perfumed decentring constantly charging the shifts from viola to computer, and from stability to shadow, that animate the depths of this deeply appealing music. Desjardins gives a sensuous and willowy performance, and the electronics match his every inward trail with sounds (veering from echoes of viola to abstract sonic patterns) that deepen and shade those of the viola.

One gets lost in the flowing overlays of gestures that move from machine to man sometimes calling to mind earlier tempi and topoi, sometimes adding sparkle to the more common whispering of the through line. Manoury makes good use of the spectrum here too with some of the electronic passages, in alliance with the brooding atmosphere, calling to mind Murail's Winter Fragments. This disc comes highly recommended as an expertly performed introduction to some of the diverse range of influences and aesthetics that inspire Philippe Manoury's well-observed, full-of-event, and rich-in-sound music.

By Stephen Graham


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