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In the idealism of their youth, some of today’s leading Italian musicians, such as Claudio Abbado and Maurizio Pollini, used to take free concerts of Luigi Nono’s avant-garde music to the workers in the factories of Milan. It was a kind of cultural evangelism that did not catch on in the UK.
To make up for what we missed in the 1960s and early 1970s the Southbank Centre is offering a series of concerts devoted to Nono’s music and his influences – “Luigi Nono – Fragments of Venice” – between now and next spring. There will be about a dozen events in all, culminating in May with two performances of Prometeo, his most imposing work for multiple orchestras, narrators and synthesised sound.
If that sounds a big pill to swallow, do not worry: the Southbank Centre has learnt the lesson of the massive Schoenberg festival it put on some years ago, which torpedoed its finances for seasons afterwards, and there will be plenty of related music, back to early Italian composers such as Monteverdi and Vivaldi, to lighten the mood. Some of the concerts do not feature so much as a note of Nono.
Monday’s opening programme provided a well-planned introduction. Three works by Nono framed a performance of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 – played with customary brilliance by the London Sinfonietta under Diego Masson – to show where Nono’s music had come from and where it went to in his maturity.
His music is fascinated by encounters of contrasting sounds. Early works such as the short Incontri of 1955 and the Variazioni canoniche sulla series dell’op 41 di Arnold Schoenberg of 1950 play with sounds emerging out of silence and blossoming into passages of poetry or drama. The later No hay caminos, hay que caminar then gave us Nono at his height, juggling five musical groups scattered around the auditorium in a surround-sound experience – more food for the intellect than for the senses, as it turned out.
A high standard of solo playing from the ever trusty London Sinfonietta ensured expert performances. One of the big events in the series will be a piano recital by Pollini at the end of the month, when Nono will be back in the hands of one of his most loyal champions.