Robin Holloway

Whisper or scream

Robin Holloway attends the Spanish premiere of Helmut Lachenmann's <em>Little Match Girl</em>

Since the recent death of Karlheinz Stockhausen, his compatriot Helmut Lachenmann, 73 this year, has inherited the Emperor’s mantle of grandiose invisiblity. I’m pitching it with provocative unfairness! Yet the struggle to extract gold from their mass of water or rock is beset with legitimate reservations that cannot be begged: Stockhausen the visionary charlatan–genius, Lachenmann the poet of exiguity — both present enormous problems to the would-be believer. In Madrid last week for completely different events, I chanced upon the Spanish première of Lachenmann’s Little Match Girl, a theatre-piece after Hans Christian Andersen, in a revised version, given without staging to open a brief season of avant-garde opera.

There was no scenery and no costumes, but plenty for the eye: the stage, bursting with most of a large orchestra, was flanked to left and right by two grand pianos, two sopranos, a small vocal group, and backed by a solid row of computer consoles. Along each side of the auditorium, there was more chorus, a handful of violins, a percussionist, plus a phalanx of woodwinds and brass. Behind the audience, there were yet more violins and a mass of electronics. A large complex apparatus for what proved to be nearly two hours’ smallness and simplicity. The idea, clearly, is symmetry of surround-sound-source — echo, answer, occasional synchrony — between most visibly the two pairs of soprano plus piano, most audibly the antiphonal winds plus percussion.

Lachenmann’s textures are minimal in the extreme (albeit miles removed from the bright populist patterning this word usually connotes). ‘Accidental’ sounds — breathing, scraping, tapping, rubbing — producing pitchless susurrations almost too soft to hear (even overhear) alternate with shattering explosions from conventionally played brass and percussion, and the electronics that could well cause grave damage to the human frame or the fabric of the building. Everything is a whisper or a scream: the only continuity is that of the spasm; there can be no fast or slow, and only the most simplistic play of contrast.

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