This is, sadly, an appropriate time for a concert entitled ‘Sounds of War’, which opened the Australian National Academy of Music Chamber Music Festival on Friday 24th June.
Three works were performed. I was familiar with two of them: Stravinsky, L’histoire du soldat (a Soldier’s Tale) and Messiaen’s Quatour pour le fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). The other work, Janȧček’s Capriccio, chamber music featuring piano written for the left hand, was new to me.
The Stravinsky is written with a libretto, based on a Russian folk tale where a soldier trades his fiddle to the devil in return for wealth. The piece was premièred near the end of World War I. On this occasion it was played purely as a piece of chamber music for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin and double bass. The strange combination of instruments (strings at either end of the pitch range, one single reed and one double reed wind instrument) gives a devilish timbre to the music. The ANAM students performed this superbly, without a conductor — the clear, precise rhythms brilliantly executed. The playing was so expressive that there seemed no need for a narrator or an outline of the story.
I’ve never been drawn to Janȧček’s music, but I can only say I was gobsmacked by the Capriccio. In the end Janȧček wrote it for pianist Otakar Hollman, who lost the use of his right hand during World War I. Hollman joined left-armed pianist Wittgenstein in seeking the composition of more works that could be played by unfortunate victims of the war. Apparently Janȧček was initially reluctant to oblige, saying it would be like creating a dance for a person with one leg. He apparently labelled this resulting work Vzdor, meaning ‘defiance’ and although there are various ways this might be interpreted it did seem to me that the work is so fiendishly difficult that Janȧček may have intentionally placed further barriers before the aspiring pianist. To his great credit, ANAM student Leo Nguyen played the part superbly. The piano doesn’t always have the lead but when it does, the left hand must execute rippling arpeggios, scales and trills over the full compass of the instrument. The extraordinary instrumentation adds to the uncanny, at times spine-chilling outcome: flute, two trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone and euphonium.
The final work, Messiaen’s Quatour pour le fin du temps is scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. It is believed that these were the instruments available to Messiaen when he was in a German prison camp during World War II. The lack of solo piano parts in the piece may be because the Germans provided a poor quality piano. In 2014, at the Edinburgh Festival, I had attended a talk by Peter Hill, an emeritus professor and well-recognised interpreter of Olivier Messiaen’s music who worked closely with the composer before his death in 1992. Hill suggested that Messiaen wrote a work to transcend war, looking to eternity and the life beyond. Before his capture by the Germans Messiaen was a medical orderly at Verdun. (He had poor eyesight and was therefore assigned a non combative role.) He chose to go on watch at an unpopular time, the early hours of the morning, so that he could hear the bird call, which he transcribed. The third movement of this piece is: Abîme des oiseaux. Peter Hill pointed out that in this work the end of time is literal as well as figurative. In the final movement, as the piece slows to the end, it becomes so very slow that it kind of runs out of rhythm. It is infinite slowness. Thus, the end of time.