Review: Berio Sequenza VI, Ives Symphony No. 1

The last concert in my Monte-Carlo was disappointing. The Berio flew, but the premiere dawdled, and an over-sized string section struggled to bring Ives's first symphony alive. 

Flick through the rest of the Monte-Carlo Spring Festival brochure and you’ll see Berio’s Sequenzas peppered throughout the remaining concerts. That in itself is a daring move from a ticket sales point of view, but one that does pay dividends.

Like the harp sequenza the night before, Berio’s fascination with sound and texture, makes for a compelling listen. If I’d found the narrative difficult to discern in number 6 on Thursday night, it was ever-present and difficult to shake in the performance of number 2.

Viola player Ieva Sruogyté confronted, grappled, and tamed an aggressive work. This was storytelling with grit, power, and determination. With this work, in particular, I think there’s a need that the performance continues for a few seconds after the final note is played.

Composer Erica Montalbetti's Eclair physionomique, fantaisiesymphonique après Paul Klee  painted an image of the sea (that’s how I heard it), an ever-shifting mass combining multiple textures moving at different rates and with a different purpose. It began with promise but was in need of a bit of an edit, running rather longer than attention could muster. Convincing ensemble work was initially compromised by a dominant percussion section.

Charles Ives first symphony was a student work whilst the composer was at Yale University in the late 1890s, making use of compositional styles from late European romantic composers, like Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Beethoven. The effect on first-listen is not unlike that strangely unsettling experience of hearing the imitative music utilised in the Simpsons in a bid to avoid a stinging copyright bill. Ives’s thorough compositional methodology making dating a work difficult, but what comes through loud and clear in the first symphony is his thoroughness, the tidiness of the church hymn music tradition which influenced him through his Yale tutor Horatio Parker.

Sure, I know, it appears like I’ve just read that stuff in a book and regurgitated it. You’re partially right. But only because there’s something odd about Ives’ music – the range, the imitation, the differing compositional styles – which makes me curious. That in itself helps stop me from wholly dismissing his music.

And that’s important, because the performance of the symphony was disappointing. The imbalanced string section of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo struggled to maintain a satisfying ensemble – some of the first violin cues could be heard to start a split second apart at the front of the section and at the back. Some intonation issues in the cellos and basses made for disappointing solos. The third movement in particular saw first violins and solo cor anglais battle to maintain togetherness. This may well have been down to the tiredness of the players (I suspect the premiere before might have knocked the stuffing out of them). Or maybe it was down to the conductor whose stick technique lacked precision at times, and whose presence on the platform was in need of something a little more authentic.

Ives’s studious creation failed to come alive for me, though the performance hasn’t dented my appetite for learning more about the composer.

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