Holst went only as far as Neptune, and both Scriabin and Ives failed to complete their musical visions of the wider universe. But Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös had the cosmos in his sights as a teenager (composing a work of that name at the time of Gagarin’s debut space flight in 1961) and has now boldly gone where no composer has gone before and attempted to encompass parallel universes in music. Multiversum, a multi-national co-commission including the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Southbank Centre, received its UK premiere under the composer’s baton after performances in nine other cities around the globe. His creation uses the temporal and spatial capacities of music as a metaphor for the hypothesis that we are living in but one of an infinite number of universes, and sonically manages to achieve an epic quality despite its 35-minute length and, numerically at least, restrained forces. For while Eötvös limits himself to a string section of just 20 players, he has solo roles for both pipe organ and Hammond organ to make up for lost numbers. Indeed the orchestra is visually deconstructed as mini ‘parallel universes’, with said string section on the left, the 12 woodwind players discretely parked on the right and the brass and percussion divided into three roughly similarly sized groupings ranged across the back of the stage.

Peter Eötvös
© Klaus Rudolph

The composer’s stated aim in the programme of recreating cinema-style surround sound through this layout was probably only true of his privileged position on the conductor’s podium – without even the choir seats in use, we in the audience were faced with a traditionally stereo audio ‘view’ of proceedings, just with the orchestral sections better delineated. However, there was an effective distancing effect between the two organs – the sound from the mighty RFH beast (played by Iveta Apkalna) mixing and merging with that from the Hammond’s speakers (in the control of László Fassang) at the front of the stage.

Musically, Eötvös’s score was less convincing, resorting to a somewhat clichéd repertoire of ‘space’ music that at its worst brought to mind 1950s sci-fi B-movies – perhaps the association of the synthesised Hammond sound led one to expect the robot Gort to appear on stage at any moment. There were nods to his fellow Hungarian Ligeti in Atmosphères mood, and to Messiaen in the rhythmic unisons of some of the woodwind writing, but there was too little of real substance to suggest more than an obvious master of orchestration having an enormous amount of fun simply wielding his unusually arrayed forces. The substance of the music felt as intangible as the concept of parallel universes itself – but perhaps that was the point...

Illusory ideas also had their part to play in the first half of this Philharmonia concert, which had begun with Schoenberg’s Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, his imaginary soundtrack to a film – very much a film noir with its descriptive scene titles: ‘Threatening Danger’, ‘Fear’ and ‘Catastrophe’. Despite this dark strain, Eötvös’s account was surprisingly soft-grained. The orchestra played beautifully for him, with all of Schoenberg’s motifs and textures carefully weighted and balanced, but for all this it lacked drama and the sense of danger. Similarly, Bartók’s exuberant Dance Suite felt a little tame, too, missing some of the composer’s famous deliberate coarseness. But the most successful among the triumvirate of 20th-century classics that formed this first half of the programme was the performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Here was another work with filmic connections, part inspired by wartime newsreel footage, part rehashing unused music destined for The Song of Bernadette (a score that in the end went to another composer). Eötvös drove home the incessant, menacing rhythms of the symphony’s outer movements, finding the forcefulness and urgency missing from the earlier pieces. If only the rest of the concert had been up to this level.