Partial Immersion: Brian Ferneyhough

Monday 28 February 2011

Against our better judgement, several hundred of us went to the Barbican to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Brian Ferneyhough, as part of their increasingly-misnamed “Total Immersion” series. (One day! Two concerts! Can you handle it?) Like the late Milton Babbitt, Ferneyhough is one of those composers whose music is overshadowed by his forbidding reputation, and so I’d like to thank Ivan Hewett for writing programme that tried to sell the punters on enjoying the music rather than getting them to figure out what a “claustrophobic and marginally chaotic renegotiation of mutual priorities” might sound like.

It’s rare for Ferneyhough to write for a large orchestra, and even rarer for that music to be played. La terre est un homme, written in the mid 1970s, is the most unrelentingly violent piece I’ve heard by Ferneyhough. It is also the greatest. Its impact on the audience was like that of an explosion, sustained for a quarter-hour. Aesthetically, it could be comprehended only as an overwhelming force of nature, simultaneously filled with terror and beauty, carrying a wealth of intricate detail with unremitting ferocity. Luckily, the performers were able to project and contain the force needed to balance both of these contradictory impulses.

This brilliance in playing was also present in the 1986 piece Carceri d’invenzione III, for winds, brass and percussion. For all the refinement in his musical language, it’s in pieces like this that, for me at least, Ferneyhough threatens to live up to his daunting reputation. As all seven Carceri d’invenzione pieces are based upon the eponymous engravings by Piranesi, it’s unsurprising that the music contained within is often claustrophobically dense and obscure. Compared to his other works, I still admire more than enjoy them.

The early Missa Brevis for unaccompanied choir was a piece I didn’t know existed, and while Ferneyhough displays excellent craftsmanship he was unable to transcend certain avant-garde affectations that were fashionable in the 1960s. Similarly, the BBC Singers showed and excellent technical command of the music, without ever really appearing in full command of what they wanted it to say.

The other highlight of the night was the other orchestral piece and most recent on the programme, Plötzlichkeit (2006). Besides having the coolest brass section, Plötzlichkeit embodied most strongly the wishes that Ferneyhough has often expressed for his music, as to how it might be received by the audience. As most recently expressed on the Today programme:

What I want to do is for them to suspend disbelief for a little bit and therefore enter into a sort of Alice in Wonderland world – through the little hole by drinking the potion – and try to even in the most confusing and seemingly chaotic circumstances to try to hold onto something.

Plötzlichkeit combines the full, distinctive voice of the composer with the fragmentary structure of his Sonatas For String Quartet from 40 years earlier; its discontinuities are reminiscent of Varèse’s approach to composition, allowing distinct blocks of sound to run up against each other in a constant balancing act of contrasts. Instead of overwhelming or exhausting, the music invited a dialogue with the listener, inviting (or taunting) them to perceive fleeting details before they disappeared, and to make their own sense of progress from start to finish.

The performance felt as though it could be a little more focussed, although that may be a problem with either me or the orchestra getting some perspective of a piece which seeks to defy any appreciation of structure.