When I first heard about ‘in vain’, an orchestral work by the contemporary Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, I confess I was little sceptical about the oft-repeated claims that it was one of the first genuine masterpieces of the 21st century. For one thing, such assessments – even when those making them include the likes of Simon Rattle – can sound a little pat, like hype; for another, the fact that the piece in question (lasting around an hour and written for 24 instruments) takes in around 20 minutes of music played in total darkness sounded a little gimmicky. Still, when I saw that the London Sinfonietta were going to be bringing ‘in vain’ back to the Royal Festival Hall, four years after they gave its UK premiere there (which was 13 years after it had been written), I thought I might as well take a gamble. I’d seen and enjoyed Haas’s ‘Morgen und Abend’ at the Royal Opera House last year, so why not give it a try?
Despite any misgivings I might have had about the work’s cult-like status, I’m extremely glad I did decide to go on down to the Southbank Centre, because it is a quite extraordinary piece of music – and yes, as claimed, it is surely a masterpiece. Composed at a time when Haas was feeling frustration, anger and despair at the rise of the far right in Austria, the piece is massive, monumental, unsettling, sombre and, for all its subtly changing repetitions, full of surprises. Both aurally and visually it makes much of the contrast between light and darkness; twice the lights in auditorium fade out to leave the audience, musicians and conductor (in this instance Brad Lubman) in darkness for around ten minutes, when the strange textures and seductive, scintillating colours of the music become even more mysterious and wondrous than they were when the lights were up. Much of the music is microtonal, with notes and chords being bent and stretched, while the tempi are constantly shifting in intriguing ways, yet it’s never difficult to listen to. If you want comparisons, the steadily mutating sound clusters of Ligeti are perhaps your best bet, though at moments I was also reminded of minimalism, spectral music, even (very distant relations, I must admit) the Sibelius of the last two symphonies and – especially in the horn section – certain Austro-German composers of the nineteenth century. In the end, however, the piece doesn’t really sound quite like anything else. That’s one of its many strengths.
To me, at least, the piece felt like some sort of epic journey through troubled waters; it was if a ghost ship was striving – in vain – to reach its destination. The music surges and drifts, whispers and echoes, climbs and slides, roars, thunders and grows eerily calm, often spiralling as if somehow caught in an invisible and inescapable whirlpool. I’ve no idea what Haas himself had in mind in writing the piece, but I do know that he managed to conjure up some miraculous sounds from the orchestra; there were times, during the darkness, when it was impossible to tell exactly what combination of instruments was being used. Was that an accordion or a brilliant mix of instruments? Hard to know for sure. Could that have been a synthesiser? No, just another example of his wonderfully vivid, imaginative and precise orchestration.
I’m writing this now not only because I’d like to pay tribute to what was an electrifying concert, wonderfully performed by Lubman and the Sinfonietta, and utterly engrossing from start to sudden finish, but because I’d like to encourage you, should you ever have a chance to catch a live performance, to take the same gamble as I did. If you’d like some idea of what the music’s like, you can sample the performance below on YouTube. But it’s not really the same, of course; actually being there in the auditorium with the orchestra, enveloped by the sirens’ song and, magically at times, the darkness, is an experience that goes beyond the musical. If the opportunity to immerse yourself in ‘in vain’ arises, I strongly recommend you take it.
Photo of Brad Lubman and the London Sinfonietta at the Royal Festival Hall, 27 April 2017, by Geoff Andrew