That tough-minded minimalist Louis Andriessen here ventures into more personal territory, taking on the agonised memoirs of Spanish writer Anaïs Nin. These reveal her torrid affairs with four men: Antoine Artaud, Henry Miller, René Allendy and her father, the Spanish composer Joaquín Nin, with whom she had an incestuous relationship. Andriessen sets excerpts for Italian soprano Christina Zavelloni and chamber ensemble in a strangely ambiguous style. lt veers between astringency, with touches of Stravinsky, and a softer idiom that strives to be unsentimental but often ends up sounding dry.
Zavelloni’s fragile tone captures the loneliness and boredom of Nin, always waiting for the arrival of the next man to stave off her inner emptiness. But you can feel the soprano’s discomfort with Andriessen’s jerky rhythms and she struggles with the English text. A performance that relished Andriessen’s sardonic idiom might have lifted the music off the page, but this one feels muted, as though its performers are unconvinced.
It’s a relief to turn to the blazing conviction of De Staat, Andriessen’s setting of Plato’s fiercely moralistic thoughts on music. The players finally come alive, hurling our Andriessen’s jagged, insistent lines with unflagging energy. Bur they’re somewhat let down by the recording, which makes the woodwind players seem distant and bloodless.
A friend of mine studied with the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen in the 1980s. He sent me a cassette (remember those?) of De Staat, and I can remember being bowled over by the music’s stark majesty and rhythmic punchiness, Andriessen’s repetitive vocal lines soaring over minimalist riffs, more redolent of Stravinsky than Glass. Written in the mid-1970s, Andriessen wrote of one early performance that he “had to sing every note for them (the musicians), because they articulated the piece like Bruckner or Mahler. And it should be articulated like Count Basie and Stan Kenton!” There’s a thrilling 1990s recording of the work by Reinbert de Leeuw’s Schoenberg Ensemble which is now unavailable. David Atherton’s London Sinfonietta live performance isn’t as viscerally exciting, but it does have the amplified Synergy Vocals’ immaculate delivery of the Plato text. Don’t get too bogged down in trying to comprehend Andriessen’s long-winded attempts to explain what the piece is about – just enjoy the noise. It’s fantastic.
De Staat is the coupling for the more recent monodrama Anaïs Nin. Completed in 2010 and setting words drawn from the author’s diaries, it doesn’t excite in the same way, despite the occasionally salacious text and Cristina Zavalloni’s virtuoso delivery. Andriessen’s music recalls Eisler, Weill and 1930s jazz, often brilliantly evocative, spare and haunting in places. But it lacks the compelling, edgy oomph of the earlier work.
Anais Nin is Louis Andriessen’s recent (2009-10) monodrama for conductorless small ensemble and singer. It toured The Netherlands, Germany and the UK in 2010-11, where it was presented – as conceived – with the instrumentalists onstage and with the singer interacting with film clips that recall her past experiences.
This recording was made at the London concert and Cristina Zavalloni, the jazz/ avant-garde singer for whom the work was conceived, again takes on the dramatic solo role. She acts, dances, crawls and reimagines scenes of erotic encounters
with – in ascending order of inappropriateness – Henry Miller, Antonin Artaud, her psychiatrist René Allendy and her own father, Joaquin Nin, the composer.
Unlike his setting of Plato in De Staat, which shares this new release, Andriessen is at pains to foreground the texts drawn from Anais’s own diaries and the letters Artaud wrote to her. In the staged performances the texts, spoken on film by Hans Buhrs and sung by Zavalloni, were subtitled at the composer’s insistence, but on disc the listener will have to contend with passages of spoken French from time to time, as at the opening, although these are clearly reproduced and translated in the booklet. Unfortunately the texts aren’t explicitly keyed to the tracks and on a couple of occasions the sung text is not exactly what is in the booklet, but these are minor blemishes.
Zavalloni’s delivery and indeed Andriessen’s way with the texts will be familiar if you know M is for Man, Music, Mozart or La Passione. It has a strident, declarative almost impersonal quality that is strangely at odds with such words as ‘And then began a night of ecstasy’. The orchestration, almost exclusively woodwind and brass with occasional contributions from the guiro and other percussion, is similarly unremitting, but Andriessen gives sections such as ‘Allendy’ a jazz-age decadence and bite to match the interrupted night-club dance rhythms. Anais writes that ‘I am enjoying Allendy’s fierceness’ as he treats her revengefully and hard-edged jazz- and march-flecked anger is a mood that Andriessen does well. One can see why Anais’s writings, with their sexual longings constantly thwarted and coolly unpicked by herself. are the appropriate bedfellow for the composer ‘s musical interests.
The problem with the piece is that for all Andriessen’s clever borrowing of louche 1930s atmospherics, such as the tango-ish rhythm, bass clarinet and hi-hat cymbal that gives the distinctive mood to ‘Father Story’, there is precious little room for unmediated pain, self-abandonment or the sheer unknowingness of love. Zavalloni is a wonderfully intelligent singer , her English and French accents excellent, but the relentless nature of the score and the insistence that her voice be close-miked gives her no room to show Anais’s vulnerable side. Even in the post-incestuous joie of ‘The seventh day’ where Zavalloni muses gently on pleasure, Andriessen leaves it very much to the soloist and the text to convey atmosphere; but then Andriessen, like John Adams, is a high-literary composer who – odd as it may seem – wants to put the words first.
The piece that made Andriessen’s name back in 1976 was another setting of literary excerpts, this time from Plato’s The Republic (De Staat in Dutch). Andriessen intended the work as ‘a contribution to the discussion about the place of music in politics’ and the style of the piece, sometimes referred to as ‘industrial minimalism’, is spiky, driven, full of rebarbative Communist angst. Andriessen, as he himself admits, had contradictory impulses to set Plato’s text, which argues for the banning of certain musical modes because of their supposedly damaging social effect: one to ridicule the notion, the second out of jealousy that music could start any revolution. Andriessen hardly helps his egalitarian credentials by setting his debate- provoking text in the original Greek, let alone by blending the four female voices so closely into the instrumental textures, but that trait is not unique. Such early minimalist voices plus ensemble works as Reich’s Tehillim (1981) or Adams’s Grand Pianola Music (1982), with their rhythmic and harmonic predictability, can sometimes sound bland. This new recording avoids such a trap through the energy and clarity of the woodwind playing, the controlled vehemence with which the brass take over from the winds, say at track 11, 7’45", and the sheer bite of Synergy Vocals cutting through the accompaniment with those Greek plosives, as Andriessen hammers away at the text on behalf of the anti-music enemy.
The performance is even better than the very good Dutch 1991 one by the Schoenberg Ensemble. The recording is crisper, the tempos even more driven by the exuberant David Atherton, the characteristic crescendo/decrescendo episodes for brass even more menacing. The excellent sound captures the hocketing semi-ensembles as they bounce chords off each other left and right.
The booklet is fine but could have been even better had Andriessen reflected on the 35-year performing history, say, of De Staat, rather than reproduce the composer’s familiar note on the piece. Some images of the production of Anais Nin would also have been welcome.
Captured at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Anais Nin/De Staat Is the first release in Signum’s planned schedule of three live recordings by the London Sinfonietta per year.
Anais Nin, an intense sonic psychodrama for solo soprano and ensemble of eight musicians in which composer Louis Andriessen explores the life and especially loves of Nin, certainly puts Cristina Zavalloni’s voice through its paces.
Snipped from Nin’s diaries. the libretto concentrates on her (in)famous lovers: actor/playwright Antonin Artaud; his (and then her) psychiatrist René Allendy; writer Henry Miller, and, most controversially, her own father, the painter and composer Joaquin Nin. Backed by some suitably 1930s instrumentation, the mood is modernist with a jazz twist and makes scandalous whoopie with Hans Buhrs’ taped voice (which takes the male roles). The piece finishes wistfully, with some relief from a ghostly onstage gramophone playing papa’s arrangement of a Basque Christmas carol.
De Staat explores the relationship between composition and politics, taking Plato’s The Republic as its text. The braying chorale builds like the most gleeful of hyperdramatic soundtracks. Here, though, the effect is not that of a Bruckheimer epic – all faux emotion – but more the lusty avant-grandeur of the likes of Werner Herzog making an elliptical examination of the state.
But as with most party political narratives, by the end the orchestra has divided, its polyphonies tussling bombastically for predominance – with none ultimately victorious.
The Independent, October 2011
Lou Reed and Metallica aren’t the only ones delving into pre-war bohemian perversity: the Dutch minimalist Louis Andriessen offers a monodrama based on the diaries of Anaïs Nin, with the soprano Cristina Zavalloni recounting Nin’s sexual liaisons with Antonin Artaud, René Allendy, Henry Miller and her own father.
With clarinet and sax used to evoke jazz-era Paris, a cabaret- flavoured, sometimes comical Kurt Weill ambience captures the amorality and loneliness in Nin’s writing. It is paired with Andriessen’s most famous composition, De Staat, in which the vocal group Synergy offer ruminations on music from Plato’s Republic, set to the reedy, methodical cycles of Andriessen’s early minimalist style.
The Guardian, October 2011
This release signals the start of a new partnership between Signum and the London Sinfonietta. The recordings are taken from the orchestra’s concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last April, which included the British premiere of Anaïs Nin, Louis Andriessen’s stripped-down music-theatre portrait of the erotic diarist, composed around the voice of the soprano Christina Zavalloni. It explores Nin’s relationship with lovers Antoine Artaud, Henry Miller and René Allendy using extracts from her diaries, along with the incestuous one with her father, the Spanish composer Joaquín Nin. It’s a curious, detached journalistic piece, with Andriessen’s reedy instrumental music often cutting across the meaning of the texts, and the few striking moments are overwhelmed by the performance of De Staat, conducted by David Atherton, that follows it. Composed in the 1970s as "a contribution to the discussion about the place of music in politics", De Staat remains one of Andriessen’s supreme achievements, an epic rechannelling of Stravinskyan rhythmic energy into his own raw-edged minimalism. That, much more than the newer work, is the reason for buying this disc.