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Gerard Grisey ‘Quatre Chants Pour Franchir le Seuil’

Barbara Hannigan – soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra/Pascal Rophé
Royal Festival Hall, 30th November 6pm.

Following the sell-out performance of the UK premiere of 'Les Espaces Acoustiques' last month, the South Bank Centre offered a chance for audiences to hear more of Gerard Grisey's distinctive and remarkable work. A portrait of the composer formed the Philharmonia's 6pm 'Music for Today' session (preceding their main performance in the Royal Festival Hall) conducted by Pascal Rophé – a specialist in French contemporary repertoire - and presented by the fellow-composer Julian Anderson.

Grisey died suddenly ten years ago at the age of only 52. By apparent coincidence, he had just completed a work entirely on the subject of death, titled variously as the 'Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold' and as 'Four Songs to Refresh the Soul', which was performed here to mark the tenth anniversary of his death. Pitting a soprano against a unique group mainly of low instruments, in which tuned percussion plays a prominent part, they are by turns meditative, startlingly lyrical and radiantly beautiful.

The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan who performed here is a contemporary specialist who takes challenging repertoire in her stride. She has been seen on the London stage at the Proms where she has performed Ligeti (in 2003) and Dutilleux (in 2005) and at the Coliseum where she sang the role of Gabrielle in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. She brought a quality of detachment which enhanced the content of the songs and the precision vital for this work.

Each song sets text from different traditions – Christian, ancient Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian. Their titles are respectively The Death of the Angel; The Death of Civilisation; the Death of the Voice and The Death of Humanity.

The Death of an Angel sets a poem by a close friend of the composer who had died suddenly. The next song draws on Egyptian material which had long fascinated Grisey (who had already devoted three other pieces to it). It describes musically and lyrically the fragments of papyrus:
‘In reading this long archaeological catalogue of hierographic fragments recovered from the casing of sarcophagi or the wrappings of mummies, I felt a wish to compose this slow litany.’

In the next song, the music moves from fragments to void and echo, setting just two short lines form a Greek poetess of the sixth century BC which include the words ‘the echo drifts in vain and falls silent among the dead’ which summarises the mood of this short but poignant section. The cello has a prominent role, which was very commendably performed.

The fourth and final song references both the epic of Gilgamesh and the flood of the Old Testament. The music creates the image of ‘Squalls, pelting rains, flood, tempest, carnage’ with ‘the voice appearing in the interstices of the fracas’. Suddenly, the clamour ceases and there is calm after the storm, and light after darkness. A gentle melody emerges, ‘music for the dawn of a humanity finally discumbered of the nightmare’:

I opened a window
And daylight fell onto my cheek.
I fell to my knees, immobile,
And wept…….
I looked at the sea’s horizon, the world……

Although described as ‘a lullaby’, it is intended not ‘for inducing sleep, but for an awakening’.

Grisey's music has been described by the composer Helmut Lachenmann as "a mysterious lever - without secrets - inviting one on luminous voyages of listening towards a metamorphosis. Voluptuous irritation of the experience of sound and time - in perpetual transformation, decomposing and crystalizing: Phoenix and ashes at the same time. Grisey's music always astonishes the senses and mind differently - and surprises itself at the same time."

The quality of surprise which Lachenmann describes does refresh the mind and the senses, meaning that one can leave feeling energized and enlivened after an hour or more of difficult avant garde music. This work does reflect and convey a process of transition on several levels. The most obvious one is the theme of crossing form life to death, but there is also a more subtle process of transformation alluded to and perhaps even experienced by the listener.

Grisey’s music has a powerful meditative quality which Anne Ozorio has described eloquently in her recent review of the UK premiere of Les Espaces Acoustiques. For me, this – whilst present here – developed more readily in that longer piece, where the listener becomes completely immersed in this distinctive sound world, and in the more abstract environment of a purely instrumental work. Although I found this piece powerful and interesting, it did not have quite the same draw for me.*

Whilst this was a brave piece of programming and a good performance, the Philharmonia’s sound is less naturally suited to this type of music than that of the London Sinfonietta (who performed the October concert - their concert had the further benefit of being conducted by a fellow-composer and close friend of Grisey). This was not quite in the same league. However, the South Bank and the Philharmonia are to be warmly commended for making available an opportunity to hear more of this very distinctive music in live performance.

Julie Williams

*See Musical Pointers review of George Benjamin's performance of Grisey's ‘Quatre Chants' (2005) and the recording on KAIROS 0012252KAI. [Editor]