If Eurostar had been running services 100 years ago, lovers of culture would have filled the trains. For a relatively brief period Paris was the capital of all that was new in the arts and it is not surprising that the Southbank Centre’s festival of 20th-century music, “The Rest Is Noise”, should devote an entire themed weekend to the city in the 1910s and ’20s.
How fortuitous, too, that just as the old aristocracies were on the point of crumbling, other patrons stepped forward to take their place. One of them was the Princesse de Polignac, American heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and it was her enthusiasm that led to composers such as Satie and Stravinsky conceiving adventurous, small-scale works specially for her Parisian salon.
At this afternoon recital she was summoned to the stage in the person of actress Harriet Walter, reading an over-long narration that failed to conjure the atmosphere of one of her legendary soirées. There was no doubt, though, as to the modernity of the music this influential patron commissioned.
The longest work on the programme was Satie’s Socrate. This takes passages from Plato about Socrates’s life and sets them as lyrical recitative over harmonies of near-minimalist simplicity. The effect is uneventful, blanched (Satie said he only ate “white food” while he wrote it) and not at all easy to bring off. Performing the version for solo singer and piano, even a soprano as adept at the French language as Barbara Hannigan did not manage to put across more than a quarter of the words. It was tempting to switch off and let her sweet sound waft past.
That could not be said of the Stravinsky items. Two short works for string quartet – the Three Pieces of 1914 and the Concertino – are mere scraps from the master’s plate, but rigorous nonetheless, and the Three Pieces for Clarinet came across as brilliant miniatures in the hands of Timothy Lines. In Renard, a 20-minute folk-tale burlesque, a lively quartet of singers and the London Sinfonietta, with Hannigan conducting, showed how vividly Stravinsky could compress an opera, and indeed a whole sound-world, when the Princesse de Polignac and her sewing-machine millions were at his elbow to persuade him.