Venturing into the Paris of the 1910s and 1920s, the Southbank Centre's The Rest is Noise festival continues its journey through a brambly thicket of 20th-century music. Sunday's programme focused on the output of Igor Stravinsky, the Russian composer who famously engendered riotous uproar at the Paris Opera House in 1913 with his savage ballet Le sacre du printemps. Yet 100 years after this momentous event, Stravinsky's music still holds surprises in store for us. Under the directorship of Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, this insightful concert featured Stravinsky's comic chamber opera Renard (1916), three of his folk-inspired chamber pieces, and the cantata-like Socrate (1919) by the eccentric French composer Erik Satie.
It was not only the programme that caused a stir, but also two staged readings given by actress Harriet Walters during the concert. With a script written by the award-winning playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, we were reconnected to the patron's voice; a voice that has tended to fall silent in the history of music. Winnaretta Singer (known then to society as the Princesse Edmond de Polignac) was not only the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, but also a prolific patron of the arts. Establishing a salon that was to become a sanctuary for avant-garde music in the 1890s, she went on to support some of the leading musicians of the day including Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel and members of the Les Six collective. The dry humour and poised intelligence of Wertenbaker's script was brilliantly animated by Walters' delivery as Winnaretta, and the concert became not only a celebration of the Parisian avant-garde, but also of a proactive woman.
Opening with the voice and piano version of Satie's Socrate, the concert saw Hannigan take on her customary role as a soprano. Her partnership with Dutch accompanist Reinbert de Leeuw has already resulted in some excellent performances during this festival and Sunday's concert was no exception. Satie (nicknamed "the Velvet Gentleman" because of his love of velvet suits) is often perceived as a sharp-penned composer with a taste for sarcastic witticisms. Yet this work, based upon the life, trial and death of the Greek philosopher Socrates, could not have been further removed from such frivolities. Commissioned by Singer, Socrate uses extracts from Victor Cousin's French translations of Plato's dialogues, in which the details of Socrates' death by poisoning are recorded. As a sparse piano part revolves around cycles of chant-like fifths, the vocal line persists in melodious monologue, imparting spiritual truths. When alluding to the swans that sing before their death in "The Death of Socrates", Hannigan's voice soared with haunting intensity, while de Leeuw's accompaniment preserved a breathtaking luminosity of tone.
A string quartet of Sinfonietta players then took to the stage and delivered rustic performances of Stravinsky's Three Pieces for string quartet (1914) and Concertino (1920). Bending pitches and crunching their strings with aggressive bow strokes in the Three Pieces, the musicians exploited Stravinsky's fascination with the wild street music of Madrid. Although such an exaggerated approach made for a style-over-substance performance, this was not necessarily detrimental to the music. The "Canticle" from Stravinsky's Three Pieces was shrouded in religious mystique on account of the players overly-pronounced sul tasto playing, while the Concertino was alive with contrapuntal energy and rhetorical drama (in part due to the decision of three performers to stand). Sandwiched in between these two works was Stravinsky's playful Three Pieces for clarinet(1919), which received a superbly virtuosic performance from Timothy Lines.
The decision to programme Renard as the closing piece for this concert was an inventive one. Commissioned again by Singer, this winsome work takes its cue from a Russian folk tale in which a cunning fox is outwitted by his colleagues the Cock, Cat and Goat, and "comes to a sticky end". Scored for four singers and a chamber ensemble with the exotic addition of a cimbalom, the composition flits between the genres of opera, ballet and burlesque. Daniel Norman (tenor), Edgaras Montvidas (tenor), Roderick Williams (bass) and John Molloy (bass) clearly enjoyed themselves on stage and relished the vigorous twists and turns of the Russian language. The premise of Renard was to join acrobatic dance with theatrical singing: it received its first performance not in Singer's salon, but with the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera House in 1922. Since this was a concert performance, directions were only printed alongside the translated text ("They produce a large scythe" was perhaps a somewhat alarming proposition for the Queen Elizabeth Hall). However, the lack of staging did not detract from the energy of the performance and it was well received by the many children in the audience.
Particular credit must go to Barbara Hannigan for bringing such a programme to the stage, not only as a performer but also as an accomplished conductor and director. The nature of Singer's patronage was sensitively communicated and allowed the concert to become a highly entertaining and educative experience for all.
Central to the concert is Stravinsky's comic chamber opera 'Renard', in which a fox comes to a sticky end.
Southbank Centre: Queen Elizabeth HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Barbara Hannigan © Elmer de Haas