What to make of what Sir Simon Rattle, in an unfailingly reprinted introduction to Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain, calls the ‘first masterpiece of the 21st century’?
I’m not sure. It certainly is a ‘masterpiece’, if we want to continue using that word. That fact is gilt-embossed on every polished note. It’s certainly one of the first of the century, being composed in 2000.
But it’s certainly not flawless.
The hype that now surrounds every performance of in vain, aided by Alex Ross’s endorsement in the final pages of The Rest Is Noise, stoked by Rattle, and slurped up like water to a thirsty man by arts organisations like the Southbank, doesn’t do the work any favours. One of the hopes of our post-(post-)modern culture should be that we can move beyond this sort of language. Not only for elaborate French-philosophical reasons, but also because it kind of spoils things for audiences.
It was hard on Friday evening to listen to the London Sinfonietta’s performance of in vain on neutral terms. One expected at the end of its 70 minutes to be inducted into a cult, and that is a recipe for disappointment. It is immensely seductive, and its technical polish of a very high level. (The Sinfonietta’s performance was equally polished and unflagging throughout.) But at the same time, there is no grit, nothing truly inexplicable, challenging or ill-fitting. In all these respects it’s rather like the Shard, or a Disney film, or an iPhone. Flawless but hollow.
The good bits were very good. The two fades into darkness work especially well. The first is a great coup de théâtre, the second an even more impressive moment of drama. Here’s where I really felt Haas’s concept of an unwanted reprise succeeded. The lighting is not a gimmick, and it contributes something concrete and musical that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. But it is not exactly Haas’s invention (as Liam Cagney observed a few days ago, Grisey was doing this sort of thing in the 70s).
The piece has its longeurs, particularly in the central section, and there are too many moments that, lighting aside, sound like first draft Grisey. Rattle claims in his note that there is very little music like this around but really, there is some. This post-Ligeti, post-spectral filigree is more lingua franca than exception, even if it’s not always done as nicely as this. And although I love Haas’s harmonic aesthetic of perpetual destabilisation/resolution I much prefer it done with more assertive lines and less ornament, as in Blumenstück or the orchestral natures mortes, both much stranger works. (But I accept that’s a personal taste thing.)
If it sounds like I’m griping, I am. If it sounds like I’m deliberately swimming against the tide of critical opinion then I guess I’m doing that too. (Although interestingly I didn’t talk to anyone over the weekend who wasn’t at least slightly underwhelmed.) However, the sometimes off-the-peg discourse around a piece like this, and what that says about our desire for 21st-century masterpieces, and what we think they should sound like, deserves closer examination.
(NB: For those wanting to read more, Jeffrey Means has posted an interesting write-up of the work’s challenges from a conductor’s perspective.)