Andriessen at 70 I: Italienisches Liederbuch (Bitte um Verzeihung, Herr Wolf)

Dan Albertson

[April 2009.]

Louis ANDRIESSEN: Passeggiata in tram in America e ritorno (1998, rev. 2001); La Passione (2000-02); Letter from Cathy (2003); Racconto dall’inferno (2004).

[This essay is the first in a series of meditations on Louis Andriessen. I send special gratitude to Denise Anderson, for her endless assistance and forbearance. D.A.]

Louis Andriessen, who celebrates his 70th birthday in June, is an unlikely radical. His family’s illustrious musical history is both well documented and thoroughly conservative, stemming from the organ tradition of the Low Countries. Appellations such as “radical” are misleading, however; one audition of an Andriessen score reveals an ear for sonority that must have developed in childhood, a fondness for detail sorely lacking in the music of many of his most ardent champions. Interest in his work seems to have tapered off in recent years, after the appearance of two large-scale books charting his first four decades of composition, more or less culminating in the six-scene opera Writing to Vermeer (1997-98), a work less rewarding and cogent than one would expect from him or collaborator Peter Greenaway. The aim of this series is to document my reactions to more recent works, vocal for the most part, which show the composer venturing into previously unimaginable territory without abandoning his essential approach.

The past decade has seen a more liberal use of strings than at any point in Andriessen’s music since his earliest phase. From the emergence of his own voice in the late 1960s, he has kept strings to a minimum, preferring to stockpile winds, brass, guitars, keyboards and percussion. A few exceptions exist, true, perhaps most memorably his Symfonie voor losse snaren (1978), a lengthy exploration of the possibilities offered by a consort of open strings, yet even here his antipathy towards modern string praxis is clear. The past few years have produced two proper string quartets, Tuin van Eros (2002) and …miserere… (based on a setting of a certain psalm by a certain Roman composer, 2006-07), successors to the amplified string quartet Facing Death (1990).

An encounter with the Italian jazz singer Cristina Zavalloni a decade ago provided much of the impetus for his recent output. He has often specified “non-classical” singers as his prototypes and her dark tone and vibrato-free voice suit his style perfectly. The first manifestation of this new passion was the brief and, alas, inconsequential Passeggiata in tram in America e ritorno. This work, with a visual component unknown to me, has bouts of energy but no particular momentum or direction; its use of Zavalloni and the poetry of Dino Campana, an Italian who spent his final 14 years in an asylum, was, however, to be a positive omen.

Campana was the fount of his largest concert work with Zavalloni to date, the cycle La Passione, in which Andriessen sets passages of various poems, and one whole poem, from the collection Canti Orfici. For the concertante duo of Zavalloni and violinist Monica Germino, La Passione features a large ripieno group — seven winds, seven brass, electric guitar, two pianos, synthesizer, two percussion, bass guitar and three violins. Flügelhorn, trumpets and cimbalom have virtuoso rôles, the latter an unnecessary addition to the palette but used with some taste. The work is arresting from the outset, with driving rhythms and an aura resembling a fanfare; Zavalloni joins the proceedings before long. Her occasional absence is one of the piece’s strongest qualities, not because her voice is grating, but such respites allow Andriessen to reveal his shining, sinewy instrumental writing. The piece’s best moment for me is past the halfway mark, a song that begins from simple means, a piano figure and a percussive scrape, and evolves to encompass almost everyone in a rapturous celebration. The work, lasting almost 30 minutes, is a parade of various Andriessen preoccupations, as well as downright sensuous interplay between voice and violin, an idea that would have seemed heretical in the Andriessen aesthetic only a few years ago. As in M is for Man, Music, Mozart (1991), a Greenaway collaboration, the music ends in reflective quietude. I must complain to its performers, though, about their slackening tempi; when BBC 3 broadcast the première in 2002, the music had a true sense of pulse. In subsequent performances the quickest passages have become mild instead, lessening the most exuberant music’s innate “passion” and deadening the contrast offered by the more lyrical moments.

Letter from Cathy (2003), for female jazz voice and quintet of harp, violin, double bass, piano and percussion, is a seven-minute truism: It is indeed a letter from Cathy Berberian to the composer, dated 27 April 1964 and read in unabridged form, the composer assures the listener. It qualifies for the “Italian” designation, because it was written for Zavalloni, whom Andriessen considers Berberian’s rightful successor, and because Berberian was a long-time Italian resident, dying there in 1983. As a consequence it is strangely autobiographical; the singer-composer (and soon-to-be ex-wife of Andriessen’s teacher Luciano Berio) writes about Stravinsky, Craft, divorce and missing Amsterdam, and one imagines the young composer’s response to such mixed news. Andriessen reacts to the text with a jumble of styles, from lounge piano to a screeching violin’s unwelcomed interjections. I am not convinced by this disparity of expression.

Racconto dall’inferno has more to savor on its own — a highlight of the music-theatre work La Commedia (2004-08), which will merit attention in the next article. Here the Italian fascination has become more antique in nature: the evergreen poetry of Dante Alighieri, from “and around” Canto XXI in La Divina Commedia. A rich ensemble is again assembled to back Zavalloni; the cimbalom is less showy here, and Andriessen’s preferred bass and contrabass clarinets get ample opportunities. The introduction is another in the long line of overtures of architectural grandeur crafted by the composer, with sustained chords and percussive pelts intertwined. Andriessen has written that he is no longer interested in denying his impulse to be a “narrative” composer; one noticeable result is that he dwells on certain words in the text much more than I would have expected. Despite fine and often plaintive vocal writing, with hints of quaking (what happened to sempre non vibrato?) and imaginative accompaniment, the piece is missing what it needs most: to convince me it is a depiction of hell. It seems much too jovial, nonchalant and pleasant, more a satire of l’inferno with its rumbling low clarinets, obstinate brass and metallic percussive strokes. Maybe the intent was a Totentanz of sorts; I have no idea. I enjoy the journey as pure music but remain a skeptic as to Lisztian tone painting. Andriessen is not yet ready for program music, perhaps to his benefit.

[An upcoming Boston Modern Orchestra Project CD, due May 12, contains three of the four pieces discussed here. The original soloists contribute. W.M.]