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Royal Festival Hall, London, May - 2008.*****

After a long break, 'Luigi Nono - Fragments of Venice' (a festival at the Southbank honouring the great Italian composer's music) resumed and culminated on the 9th & 10th May with the long awaited (and belated) UK premiere of his monumental 'tragedy of listening', Prometeo . The opportunity to experience this colossal masterpiece, scored for an array of forces including four orchestras, choirs, soloists, speakers, two conductors and live electronics was such that I simply had to attend both nights. It is a work that perhaps takes days of post-concert reflection to ascertain and enumerate just some of its meanings, and will remain as much a challange for hermeneutic interpretation as it does musical interpretation.

If the premiere on the Friday did not quite scale the heights set by A Floresta jovem e cheja e vida last October, the second performance the next day (even with the ocasional mistake) did. Whereas the first was, understandably, rather cautious and hesitant at times (even with moments of awe-inspiring sublimity), the Saturday performance went beautifully as it 'floated' from one island (titles that Nono gave to individual movements) to another. Originally intended for St Mark's Cathedral in Venice, Nono drew inspiration from the antiphonal performance practises of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli during the Renaissance. Prometeo was, however, eventually given its world premiere at the church of San Lorenzo within a wooden ark structure (specially designed by architect Renzo Piano) in 1984, only to be revised again in 1985.

As the concert programme revealed, it has since been performed throughout Europe (in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal) and even as far afield as Japan. Why it has taken so long to come to the UK is perhaps worthy of a discussion itself (see my article, Luigi Nono and the British Intelligentsia). One might say Nono's music is everything the British (and a whole hoard of UK music critics) have loathed about art; it's avant-garde, metaphysical, visionary and moral. In other words, it's profound. As Hilary Finch noted in The Times, Prometeo has 'perhaps proven just too physically and intellectually intractable for our little isle'. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see some of Britain's most established composers present at the performances, eager to learn from the Italian master.

Having taken part in a debate during the symposium Understanding Nono, Understanding the World (Purcell Room), I advocated the idea that the texts serve as pointers to the profounder meanings of the music - as they point the listener in the right direction. Indeed, a certain access to Massimo Cacciari's wonderfully poetic libretto (itself a compilation of Ancient Greek authors, Hoelderlin and Walter Benjamin exploring the history of humanity) may have considerably helped newcomers to this daunting and demanding masterwork. What a shame Cacciari (now Mayor of Venice) could not attend these performances, as his insights would have proven invaluable, especially in the pre-concert talks. This is because, for all Nono's deconstructions and superimpositions of the words, the texts are important. However, at the Royal Festival Hall, with the lights dimmed low, such access may have proven impossible for the audience; some of whom in any case (as revealed in their post-concert comments) would have prefered the auditorium darker to enhance atmosphere.

Perhaps an alternative would have been to project the texts above the stage (as was done for movement titles) - not in the form of a 'listening score', like that which accompanies the recent Col Legno recording (2007), but a kind of overview from which the newcomer may meditate on some of the ideas that inform the music. These differing degrees of text-access illustate some of the disparities in experiencing Prometeo as a recording and at a live performance. However, having spoken to Nuria Schoenberg-Nono (daughter of Schoenberg and the widow of Nono) about this, she insisted it was not an opera, and the texts should not really be followed during the performance as it might distract from the central aspect of listening. In that respect, the listener should perhaps familiarise his/herself, as much as possible, with the libretto prior to the concert.

No recording, of course, competes with the actual experience of listening to a live performance - but especially so with Prometeo as the architecture and acoustics in which the music (or mobile sound) is projected and relayed around a 360 degree space, is fundamental to its conception. It therefore lends itself, to a far greater extent than usual, to the characteristics and ambience of the hall of its realisation. The handling of real-time electronics by Andre Richard and his team at the RFH was extraordinary, beautifully subtle and sophisticated, blending indiscriminantly with the quasi-incalculable sounds produced via new playing techniques, that Nono conjures from the instrumentalists. Indeed, there was often a chamber-like transparancy between voices, ensembles (fragmented and disposed throughout the performing space) and electronics, only at times to be violently interrupted by massive chords, puntucation marks and abrasive fanfares resounding like thunder from one side of the auditorium to another (as in Isola 1).

These may be viewed as protests, warnings - products of what Walter Benjamin described as the 'historical process'; the merciless march of history that has swept humanity along its tragic path (Benjamin's Theory of History is given a central role in Cacciari's libretto). This tragic conception of history, that Nono (who had witnessed the horrors of fascism during the Second World War) was only to aware of, is both alluded to and counter pointed throughout his music. In Prometeo, it perhaps finds its most evocative and imaginative realisation in the spiralling sound-vortex that is Hoelderlin ; a sustained choral lament that came accross vividly thanks to the impassioned singing of the soloists and the electronic diffusion. This was in turn, countered by Tre Voce a with its moving refrains, 'ascolta, ascolta' ('listen, listen') in which Prometheus, and it follows, human possibility, finds potential fulfillment. 'Here the measure of time is filled'.

Only by 'blowing apart' the historical process*, fracturing it (as a linear/narrative conception in theatre, or as in later parts of Prometeo, even the temporal flow of music itself) did Nono believe it was possible to recover a meaningful relationship between different times and spaces; one that would truly enlighten the present. 'To us is given a weak power, but it is enough to make an epoch leap out of history, ..... a life leap out of its epoch' the libretto quotes Benjamin in Tre Voce b. 'It urges us to awaken what has been broken.' With this in mind, Nono aligns himself, in the most profound sense, with the victims of history. (Nono's subtitle may actually refer to Benjamin's 'weak messianic power', and the repeated directive to 'listen to it').

The dialectic between continuum and fragmentation lies at the very heart of Prometeo's dramaturgy. In both performances, this dialectic was enhanced by an amazing contrast of dynamics (levels specified by Nono to the degree of ppppppp) that circumnavigate a whole spectrum of dynamic possibility; from the most loud to the well-nigh inaudible. And if anything, the dramatic gestures and swift tempo changes that inform, say, Isola 3-4-5 and Tre Voce b could have been augmented further. This is Luigi Nono - whose freak visionary genius and sense of drama may perhaps be likened to El Greco or Tintoretto in painting.

Both evenings were marked by an extraordinary hushed aura and serenity that gradually descended upon the audience, especially noticable in the final Stasimo 2 (another allusion to Benjamin's 'weak power'). Who could not recall those high resonant chords, with vocal descant, resounding from the left balcony of the hall, and the utopian strains (bare fifths) of possibility with which the work concluded? No doubt, an avid reflection of the last lines, quoted from the unfinished third act of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, 'In the desert, it is invincible'.

Of the performers, Roberto Fabbriciani (who worked closely with Nono) should be signalled out for his fabulous, evocative bass-flute playing, but also the London Sinfonietta, the RAM Manson Ensemble and Synergy Vocals - who have approached the piece for the first time under the clear direction of Diego Mason and Patrick Bailey.

Prometeo is a difficult listen, but in every way it stands as an unbelievable acheivement.

Reviewed by Stephen Beville, pianist and composer, (c)2008.

* as posited by Klaus Zehelein, 'Intolleranza 1960 - Music at the Crossroads', Teldec Classics, 1995.


I went to the Saturday performance and was 'knocked out'. Music will never be the same for me from now on.... [I have mentioned this in two forums already].... I would like to know how one can get to study the score - I can't afford the over 700 euros + postage to buy it - and I would like to know if someone has done a [readable] [helpful] analysis.

I wish, I wish I had gone to the Nono 'festival' last autumn. I always used to like his music in the 'old days' of Darmstadt etc. but I lost the thread as he wove his compositions further and further out. I can't accept the excessively subjective philosophising which strikes me as not at all in the spirit of Marxism, but the experience that he has been through and takes us through in Prometeo is so shatteringly real that the tragedy in music gives the philosophising a validity it would not have otherwise deserved. [And is it so different in this respect from 'Fidelio' or 'The St.Matthew Passion'? Actually the closest parallel I could think of was 'Orfeo'.... But actually it sets a new 'benchmark'....]

  Re: NONO`S MASTERPIECE, PROMETEO, RECEIVES UK PREMIERE.  Bevillia at 14:00 on 16 May 2008

The libretto was written by a philosopher, and Nono was an artist, a man of (among other things) great philosophical thought. It is a work that therefore demands some philosophical interpretation, I feel, if only to bring about greater understanding. You will find much of this confirmed in an absorbing essay by Mario Viera de Carvalho (now, Portugal's Minister of Culture) on Nono's use of 'montage' techinique in Luigi Nono - Fragments and Silence, (Contemporary Music Review, Volume 2)- one of the very few recent publications on Nono in the English language. It's worth looking at, to observe the evolution of Nono's thought, the influence of Cacciari and Benjamin, and just how he tried to reflect his ideas in his music - on a practical, technological and philosophical level. There are other articles that likewise explore the influence of Gramsci, and his concept of 'Resistanza' - all of which are relevant.

In this respect, although comparable in stature to some of the works you cite, Prometeo offers a new profundity, as in the relationship between the text and music and in the contemporary 'means' by which that is expressed.

Alas, I have no score. The only scores are copies of Nono's handwritten manuscipt. As I understand, it has yet to be published; however, Ricordi are working on a new edition of his works, presumably with that in mind.