Review by Madeline Roycroft
Speicher, the title of Enno Poppe’s 2013 work for large ensemble has a number of translations in English, including reservoir, memory and storehouse. All of these mirror the complex structure within the piece, performed by ELISION ensemble and students of the Australian National Academy of Music. Over the course of 75 minutes, early snippets of thematic material are carried into new and expanded contexts as six individual works weave recurrent ideas and memories. The audience can then draw upon their own memories of the unfolding work to determine why the music becomes increasingly familiar.
Conductor Carl Rosman leads a polished and thought provoking performance of Poppe’s monumental work. Valiant and untiring, Rosman barely takes a second to pause as the six segments (which range in length from three to twenty minutes) move seamlessly onward.
Various sections are infused with popular music styles, allowing us to hear pitch bends and vibrato from the clarinet, snatches of laid-back drumbeats and bluesy influence in the muted brass. Poppe’s use of colourful instrumental pairings is a real highlight of the work. Nothing confirms timbral innovation more than audience members’ eyes darting madly around the stage, trying to determine the source of unusual instrument pairings. Sustained harmonics in the upper strings pass seamlessly to the flute; contrabassoon and bass clarinets deliver solo passages in the very top of their ranges. A sudden, feisty duet between soprano saxophone and accordion is exemplary of the innovative use of timbre. ANAM saxophonist Luke Carbon is show-stealing in numerous explosive solos that jump frantically between top register squeals and robust, overblown bottom notes which display just how well the instrument lends itself to extended techniques.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Speicher though is the impact that listening to microtones for an extended period of time has on the audience’s sense of pitch. From the very beginning of the work there are extensive periods that provide the listener with mere fragments or compressed versions of a melody. Sustained discordant clusters, coloured by members of the high wind section, repeatedly punctuate these passages. Rather than recoiling at the potentially unsettling nature of these chords, the audience is comforted by the rare moments of stillness they provide. There is also a physical dimension to the performance in which the musicians momentarily relax their jerky body language as they lean into sustained dissonances.
Adjusting to the busy, disjointed nature of the opening themes creates an equally unusual sense of rhythmic displacement in the listener. At the sudden appearance of a single coherent phrase, this characteristic becomes strikingly evident. Performed sensitively in the top range of the cello, a melody that spans only several bars is cleverly unprecedented to the point that it is perceived as a syntax error for the human ear.
A feat that the performers execute particularly well throughout Speicher is the evolving role of instrument groups within the ensemble. During the six sections we experience a quiet, playful opening of sliding and seesawing violas, dense chords in the strings and keyboards enhanced by solo wind and brass voices, then a sudden ‘attack of the high winds’ in the supercharged finale.
From the beginning of this concluding section, Poppe has already rewritten the rules of conventional voicing in an innovative exploration of the top register, which members of ELISION and ANAM treat with utmost musicality. Sustained, high-pitched cluster chords from piccolos, oboe, soprano saxophone and clarinet could easily result in a shambles; instead, balance is achieved to the point of borderline aural discomfort. Dissonances ring out across the auditorium, achieving dynamic strength that is seldom heard from woodwinds alone. The brass section adds to the effect towards the end, generating an energised and equally voluminous charge to the finish line.
The texture suddenly becomes sparse for the work’s gripping conclusion, led masterfully by ELISION veterans Paula Rae and Peter Veale. A continuous note from the piccolo and oboe is repeatedly bent up and down, like a wide vibrato played in slow motion. The woodwinds gradually fade, and the conclusion – which is strangely evocative of a fly trapped in a jar – is executed tenderly by Tristram Williams on the soprano trombone, buzzing softly in steady pulsations of the same eerie pitch.
Overall, ELISION and ANAM are to be commended for their outstanding interpretation of Poppe’s multilayered work. Australian audiences should cross their fingers that this premiere performance allows Speicher to find a place in future programming of contemporary repertoire.
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
2 September 2016
Enno Poppe, Speicher (Carl Rosman, conductor)