Sound Unbound; András Schiff review – breaking down the sound barriers

Barbican; Wigmore Hall, London
An accessible festival won young and new fans, while the master pianist defied – and revived – Schumann

The little girl in the red raincoat was transfixed. Sitting on the edge of her seat in the front row of the Barbican Hall, her unbounded enthusiasm for everything she was hearing seemed to encapsulate all that the Barbican’s Sound Unbound project was trying to achieve – opening new (and not-so-new) ears to the adventure of music.

For the price of a colourful wristband, 3,000 people – 54% of whom, says the Barbican, were new to the venue – savoured a vast musical tasting menu, served up informally over a weekend in short sessions across the entire centre, in foyers and on outdoor terraces, in halls and performing spaces. In just one afternoon I heard everything from operatic arias to music for six planks of wood.

This relaxed approach allowed people of all ages both to experiment with music they might not normally feel drawn to, and to escape into the warm embrace of familiarity if it all got a little too out-there for comfort.

The BBC Singers tried valiantly to make sense of I Eat the Sun and Drink the Rain by Sven Helbig, a piece for choir, visuals and electronics that he describes as a song cycle. But a cycle requires some shape: here, every number felt like the culmination, not part of a journey, despite being sung in front of a mystic world of crashing seas, surging rivers and plunging waterfalls.

The ‘truly uplifting’ Street Orchestra of London at the Barbican.
The ‘truly uplifting’ Street Orchestra of London at the Barbican. Photograph: Mark Allan

Much more intriguing was the innovative world of viol player Liam Byrne, who performed new music on an ancient instrument, with a little help from modern electronics. Standing in the entrance lobby, the truly uplifting Street Orchestra of London crashed their way through Bernstein’s Candide overture with aplomb, while in the darkness of the Curve, 25 people twirled fluorescent tubes in time to Anna Meredith’s Hum, a weird though curiously benign experience.

Out in the conservatory, six supremely talented percussionists from the Guildhall school gave a virtuosic reading of Michael Gordon’s Timber, a study for six planks of wood. Striking the blocks with timpani sticks, they worked their way through this 60-minute piece of mathematical logic with admirable concentration, the sound rising and falling in great arcs of intricate rhythm.

‘Countertenor Tim Mead with the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican.
‘Countertenor Tim Mead with the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican. Photograph: Mark Allan

The little girl in red had been captivated by the playing of the Academy of Ancient Music, who, having accompanied the countertenor Tim Mead in a selection of spectacular arias (“I’m a sort of classical Bee Gee,” he told the audience), breathed vigorous new life into Handel’s Water Music. Her enthusiasm earned her a warm handshake from the orchestra’s leader in a charming display of connection and communication typical of the whole weekend.

There was more direct communication at the Wigmore Hall, where the venerable pianist András Schiff told his audience he hoped they would “not know where Bach stops and Bartók begins, because Bach is so modern”. To prove his point, he reshaped his recital programme, interleaving Bartók’s 1939 Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm with four duetti from the third book of Bach’s 1739 Clavier-Übung, the cleansing Bach bringing clarity to the denser Bartók in an inspired example of both exquisite playing and creative education.

András Schiff.
‘Total mastery’: András Schiff. Photograph: Amy T Zielinski/Redferns

Later, Schiff begged forgiveness from Schumann. When Schiff took part in the Leeds piano competition in 1975, jury member Charles Rosen told him that a manuscript of Schumann’s ecstatic 1836 Fantasie in C, Op 17 with an alternative ending was rumoured to exist in the national library in Budapest. Schiff found it, and there he saw Schumann’s hand had crossed out the final section of the third movement, replacing it with a more conventional conclusion.

Musical ethics demand you respect the composer’s intentions, but Schiff believes that Schumann was merely bowing to the taste of the time and that we should hear his original, genial ending. It was a revelation and a fitting close to an evening of total mastery.

Star ratings (out of 5)
Sound Unbound ★★★★
András Schiff ★★★★★


Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

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