Reivew: Bartók, Stravinsky & Eötvös — Philharmonia Orchestra @ Royal Festival Hall

by Lucía Camacho Acevedo, 7/2/19

Péter Eötvös  | Photo via Müpa

Premiered by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2017, Peter Eötvös’ Multiversum is meant to channel the composer’s fascination with current theories on the nature of the cosmos and parallel universes. Instead, the piece is reminiscent of the sound worlds of classic science-fiction cinema, steampunk fantasies and arcade games. 

 

One reason for this is Eötvös’ choice of instruments — the use of both a concert organ and a Hammond B3 organ. Last Thursday Ivana Apkalna activated the very air with her exhilarating performance on the Harrison & Harrison organ that spans the full width of the Royal Festival Hall stage. A Leslie rotary speaker created a Doppler effect that obfuscated the central location of the Hammond organ. Leaving a sense of subdued molecular transformation hovering above the audience, László Fassang’s performance and his occasional manipulation of knobs and dials succeeding in bridging the gap between music, retro technology and the theme of scientific exploration.

There is probably more to this combination astrophysics and nostalgia. As Eötvös recently reckoned, ‘when the honoured audience hears Bach’s Toccata in D minor at the start of Multiversum, it hears correctly: this work starts with the Big Bang of the organ literature’. I was briefly reminded of the film Barbarella (1968); an electric organ on the soundtrack also invokes the opening mordent of Bach’s Toccata in D minor as Doctor Durand Durand prepares to operate the Excessive Machine. 

Multiversum sounds like classic science-fiction cinema, steampunk fantasies and arcade games

Despite its division into three movements, Multiversum has the feeling of an episodic suite. This is also the case with the works that were performed before the interval: Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene, Op. 34, Bartók’s Dance Suite and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Multiversum shifts from bursts of kaleidoscopic patterns and eerie synth-like textures to passages of pulsing rhythmic regularity. The latter occasionally suggest the bleeps and blips of mechanised calculations. 

 

 

It was refreshing to experience a nontraditional distribution of the instruments onstage, with the woodwinds placed on the right, and the stellar brass and percussion sections divided into three groups scattered across the stage. However, Eötvös’ deployment of restrained orchestral forces rather eluded the idea of multiple synchronous realities, because passages often featured only one or two instrument groups — which, in conjunction with the frequent solos, expressed a simplifying approach to the complexities of the universe.

 

The list of compositions relating to the cosmos, or specifically shaped by an astrological understanding of the planets, is oddly extensive. Popular examples include Holst’s The Planets, Ives’ unfinished Universe Symphony, and  — more recently  — Eric Whitacre’s Deep Field, inspired by the Hubble Space Telescope. Last year saw the premiere of string quartets by Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Deborah Pritchard, Laurence Crane, Mira Calix, Richard Bullen, Shiva Feshareki, Samuel Bordoli and Yazz Ahmed. Each of these composers were commissioned by Sound UK and Live Music Sculpture to create a piece ‘responding to both their chosen planet and the unique design of the live venues’. 

 

In the wake of such epic ambition and a ‘harmony of the spheres’ renaissance, Multiversum proves engaging but not awe-inspiring.

Lucía Camacho Acevedo is a TECHNE scholar and PhD music student at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

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