It was clear from the start of this Monday’s ‘Out Hear’ concert at Kings Place that we were in for an intense performance. The stage was bare and the lighting was down. Christophe Desjardins’ recital of partitas by J.S. Bach and Philippe Manoury was a serious affair, as befitted a serious and intriguing selection of works.

Christophe Desjardins, © Eric Besnier
Christophe Desjardins,
© Eric Besnier

Manoury’s Partita I is for viola and live electronics. A device attached to one of the violist’s right-hand fingers is linked to the electronic setup in such a way that the movements of this arm affect the synthetic sounds produced. The setup, nodding towards Pierre Boulez’s piece for violin and electronics Anthèmes II, involved Desjardins moving between two music stands onstage, with a number of speakers distributed around the sides of the room. The spatial effects created an immersive experience, and the wash of viola sounds which filled the room was always striking and often hypnotic. This is what it must be like, I thought, to be an ant trapped in a viola.

The concept may have been Boulezian, but the sounds often had the denser edge of Stockhausen; there was something highly intergalactic about the shifts in sonic focus around the room, and indeed about the harmonies produced by Desjardins and his sound engineer Christophe Lebreton. At times the piece was very beautiful, whether because of the chords produced or the spatial effects. But at other times it was not as mesmerising as it might have been, and structurally it was not completely compelling. A clearer plan in the programme might have helped to orientate the audience around this highly abstract, hard-to-grasp piece.

Manoury’s work certainly sounded like an experiment, and this is fair enough. For me, though, experimental music is more rewarding when it sounds like an adventure, but this piece lacked both the open-ended exploratory nature of the John Cage-influenced experimental school, and the labyrinthine mystery of Boulez proper.

There was much to enjoy within Partita I, and the 45 minutes that it apparently lasted certainly passed quickly. Desjardins' performance, further, was exquisitely nuanced, careful, and intelligent. The piece, however, hasn’t made my Christmas playlist.

The Manoury was prefaced with a performance of J.S. Bach’s Partita no. 2 in D minor, transcribed down from the violin’s range into the viola’s. Desjardins adopted a strident, baroque tone, relishing in the richness of the lower register and perhaps aiming to justify the transcription through the strength that the viola can bring to this range. The higher passages, on the other hand, did suffer slightly, often seeming slightly overlooked and inevitably lacking the sparkle offered by a violin.

The transcription was at its most convincing in the epic closing ‘Ciaconna’, which contains sufficient textural depth to merit re-examination in the lower register. There were moments, however, such as the graceful closing section, when I missed the presence of a real soprano range. Perhaps like Manoury's piece, there was an experimental edge to this transcription which was not completely stable.

All that said, Desjardins worked consistently hard to make this transcription work, and the palpable note of effort in the performance was eminently appropriate for this exceptionally draining and virtuosic composition. It was an extremely, beautifully human performance, which contrasted greatly with the space-age spectra of the piece that followed.