It always helps if a composer has a champion in the concert hall. The pianist Maurizio Pollini was a close friend and colleague of Luigi Nono and his presence in Wednesday’s recital was one of the highlights of the South Bank’s ongoing festival, “Luigi Nono – Fragments of Venice”.
In the 1960s, inspired by the idealism of the decade, Nono became highly politicised. Together with Pollini and Claudio Abbado, he set up a programme to take music to the people, going out to the factories of northern Italy with concerts of contemporary music (though one cannot help wondering what the workers made of it, when a lot of Nono’s music is hard going even for dedicated music lovers).
Following the overall theme of setting Nono’s music in context, Pollini began with music from the Second Viennese School – Schoenberg’s Three Pieces Op.11 and Six Little Pieces Op.19, played with his customary Apollonian poise and clarity, and Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano Op.5 with Alain Damiens as clarinet soloist.
From there to Nono is a small step in theory, but a large one in practice. Nono wrote...sofferte onde serene...for Pollini in 1976, and 17 years after his death it remains one of his most visible pieces, mainly thanks to Pollini keeping it in the public eye. The score actually involves two Pollinis, one playing live on stage, the other pre-recorded on tape. The two overlap and interweave, creating complex textures like lapping waves and echoing Venetian bells. It is an intriguing and sometimes beautiful work.
After the interval, however, we hit the hard stuff. A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida (1966/7) is one of Nono’s major agitprop pieces, written for three solo voices, five percussionists with metal strips and chains, and a background tape of anti-Vietnam war demonstrators. It started – appropriately for a concert on Halloween night – with rattling chains, low moaning and squeaky door noises, like the soundtrack to some art-house horror film, but soon descended into interminable passages of political chanting and ambient sound effects, the sort of performance art piece that sounds very passé now. If Nono was alive today, he might do better to call himself an artist and enter it for the Turner Prize.