Musikfest Berlin 1: The Big Bang
The conceptual frameworks and strands of inquiry that give structure to Musikfest Berlin – the annual festival of concerts organised by the Berliner Festspiele – vary from year to year; what remains constant is the guiding principle that twentieth and twenty-first century pieces can and should occupy the same programmes as the august masterworks of Mozart or Beethoven. Over the past several years this approach has resulted in countless concerts where the joy of hearing familiar works performed by world-class orchestras and soloists is paired with the thrill of new discoveries.
Yet even with the festival’s tendency toward adventurous programming, the decision to open proceedings with Wolfgang Rihm’s Tutuguri seemed especially bold. Both the duration and demands of the piece – in addition to a large orchestra, it calls for a sound engineer, an actor capable of extreme vocalising, and six virtuoso percussionists – have limited the number of performances since its première in 1982. Yet on this evening the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Harding delivered a persuasive, highly focussed performance which revealed a thoroughly engaging and surprisingly accessible orchestral work hiding behind a fearsome reputation.
Rihm’s inspiration for Tutuguri was a poem of the same name by Antonin Artaud, who travelled to Mexico in the 1930s and witnessed a peyote ritual of the Tarahumara people during the course of his journey. Rihm used the unfolding visions of the poem to lend his piece a loose narrative structure, but also drew heavily on Artaud’s ideas of theatre as a visceral, transformative experience, able to convey meanings beyond what was possible with mere language. Not surprisingly, Tutuguri was originally intended for the stage, where it was to be accompanied by dance. Yet even in concert performance, the work was both fascinating and approachable, allowing its flashes of Artaudian confrontation to appear in subtle but striking ways.
Before the music had started, a man entered from one of the side doors, suggesting a flustered late arrival unable to find his seat. Instead of sitting down he launched into a dramatic reading of Artaud’s poem (in French), emphasising the feverish, sun-baked imagery of the text with a series of minor physical contortions. The orchestra began to play before the poem was finished, and the long passages of near silence – punctuated by brief but forceful blasts from the percussionists – created an ominous, unsettled mood. Before long, the six percussionists began an extended polyrhythmic bass drum work-out and the hundred minute journey of Tutuguri’s first part was underway.
When the brass and drums were at their most frenzied, one could (perhaps inevitably) hear distant echoes of Le sacre du printemps, and one would not have been unjustified in being reminded on occasion of the Turangalîla-Symphonie; yet unlike Stravinsky or Messiaen, Rihm did not seem especially interested in the ecstatic element of the ritual experience. Nor, for so long a work, was there much in the way of monotonous repetition. Instead, Rihm seemed more fascinated by the hypnotic potential of the different orchestral groupings and sonic events. Individual sections, from static clusters of quiet strings to concentrated passages of unaccompanied percussion, would extend consistently beyond the point where they should logically have ended; only after one had been forced to accept the possibility that a given section might never end did the music – suddenly, often violently – change its course.
These over-extended passages were less an occasional peculiarity than a central organising principle; the length of the episodes made it difficult to get a firm handle on the work’s structure. The boundaries between different sections and movements (there were nominally three movements in the First Part) were indistinct, and there was an odd, but not unpleasant, sense of disorientation that came from not knowing precisely where you were within the piece. This approach, however, did not please everyone: a handful of people, unable to deal with the work’s apparent uncertainty of direction, walked out mid-performance.
Rhythm was very much at the heart of the work, although the six solo-percussionists – augmented by a timpanist, and four gong-players situated in different parts of the auditorium – never lapsed into anything as obvious as drum-circle tribalism. Each percussionist had at their disposal an unwieldy array of flexatones, vibraphones, congas and large metal sheets – it required an entire page of the programme booklet to list of all the percussion items on the stage – but the instruments were grouped and deployed in an exacting manner. One memorable section featured all six of the percussionists scraping out complex rhythms on guiros; another was scored entirely for woodblocks. The extreme physicality of these performances was matched by total sonic clarity: even in the most homogenous passages, one could discern the contribution of each player.
For Rihm, the human voice was also an essential part of the ritual experience, and it appeared throughout the course of the piece in different forms. The choral parts, a series of syllables untethered to a recognisable language, were pre-recorded and played back through the loudspeakers of the auditorium which, on its initial appearance, caused several people to start looking around for the source of the sound. In the third and final movement of the first part, Graham Forbes Valentine, who had recited the poem at the beginning, added a further layer of intensity to the music with a series of anguished syllabic incantations. (Although very well performed, this section caused at least two people seated nearby to lapse into fits of uncontrollable giggles)
When the first part ended – not with a bang from the drums, but an actual whimper from the speaker – the audience dissolved into raucous and prolonged applause. But the piece was not yet over. During the interval, all of the chairs and music-stands belonging to the orchestra were removed from the stage, along with all items of tuned percussion. What emerged during the final part, scored only for drums, gongs and taped choir, was a very controlled chaos, a series of dialogues between specific instruments – bass drums, snare drums, congas – evolving into a more complex series of overlapping rhythms and timbres which brought the evening to a vigorous conclusion.
Although the drumming was perhaps the most prominent feature of the evening, the consistently excellent playing of the orchestra should not be overlooked. Even in the wildest sections, there were few rough edges to be found; the brass were superlative, and the magnificent strings were capable of striking variations in tone and mood, moving effortlessly between spacious brightness, earthy richness and ice-cold luminescence. Presiding over everything, and acting as the barrier between taut intensity and complete disorder, was Daniel Harding who, for the duration of the piece, was able to convey the sense that every sound – and even the moments of near silence – existed in relation to an insistent, all-encompassing rhythm that remained present even when it was not immediately audible.
Tutuguri may be a work of orchestral maximalism and sonic extremes, but the success of the evening’s performance lay in its unwillingness to treat the piece as mere spectacle or provocation. The coming weeks of Musikfest promised performances of other large-scale orchestral works from the twentieth century, including several by Edgard Varèse, another master of the extensive percussion section; however with their performance of Tutuguri, Mr Harding and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra set the bar for the festival admirably high.