Ensemble Recherche / Solistenchor Freiburg

Nono: Prometeo, Tragedia dell'ascolto

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Luigi Nono, like many of his contemporaries who came of age in the turmoil of the European conflicts of the 1930s and 1940s, embraced a modernism that could begin to express the devastation and desolation of his personal experience. But Nono, more fully than any other prominent composer, embraced a political radicalism that shaped his art. He wrote in 1970, "The battle against fascism and imperialism is my purpose in life. I am only coincidentally a musician." Nono's use of Hesiod's anti-heroic version of the Prometheus myth is an expression of the essential tragedy of the human condition. The composer describes Prometeo, Tragedia dell'ascolto (Tragedy of listening) (1982) as a "dramatic action" rather than an opera; the spatial deployment of the massive forces the work requires inevitably creates a sense of drama in live performance, but the emphasis is firmly on the aural rather than the visual experience. The text, taken from ancient sources, and a libretto by Massimo Cacciari, is non-linear, and Nono's practice of breaking the words into their component syllables, which he then distributes between various voices, effectively eliminates any clear sense of narrative. What is left is the aural musical experience, which is only occasionally syntactically meaningful. Given those constraints, it's perhaps surprising how powerfully effective the work is in its cumulative impact. Its subject is listening, and it requires close listening in order for its felicities to reveal themselves. Nono's intensely atmospheric writing is bleak and spare, but the details are often astonishingly beautiful -- the clouds of shifting microtonal chords in the chorus, the contrapuntal overlapping of the solo voices, and the delicacy of the orchestration that most often uses the instruments at the extremes of their ranges. The huge array of soloists, chorus, instrumental ensemble, soloists form several German orchestras, two conductors, and a number of sound directors managing the live electronics do a fantastic job of creating and maintaining the work's hushed, ethereal moods throughout its two-hour length. Prometeo is not for everyone, but it's a serious, imaginative essay in modernism with genuine depth and substance that should appeal to those willing to give themselves over to truly listening.

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