The Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, Amsterdam’s foremost modern classical music venue, opened the music season with a day dedicated to percussion. The first concert included Stravinsky’s Suite from L’histoire du soldat (1918) and Varèse’s Ionisation (1929-31) and Hyperprism (1922-23). What is most striking about these three pieces of music is how modern they still sound, despite being written almost a century ago.

Asko|Schonberg © Annaleen Louwes
Asko|Schonberg
© Annaleen Louwes

Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat is a theatrical piece that not only includes dancers and musicians but also actors who tell the story. Today, however, Asko|Schönberg performed the suite, which is an experience in itself. Unlike Stravinsky’s ballets, such as L’oiseau de feu and Le sacre du printemps, L’histoire du soldat does not contain its story within the music – which means that when it is performed as a suite, the music at times seems random and disconnected; it requires the text to truly do it justice. Despite this, Asko|Schönberg gave an energetic performance, with some of the highlights being the interaction between the first violin and percussionist and the immense skill of the clarinettist. Musically, L’histoire du soldat is an intensely jazzy work. The rhythms are contagious and it has a air of improvisation about it (even though no improvisation is involved). The upbeat and light-hearted nature of the music contrasted quite beautifully with the two Varèse pieces that followed – making the Stravinsky a way to ease into the concert.

Edgard Varèse was an extraordinary composer. Writing in the first half of the 20th century, his music still sounds as fresh today as it must have done in his time. Hyperprism is a piece written for nine wind players and ten percussionists, and is a whirlwind of rhythms and harmonies. The combination of the instruments, including myriad percussion instruments, is much more versatile than one might expect – and the musicians of Asko|Schönberg and Slagwerk Den Haag gave a dynamic and impressive performance. I noticed a few members in the audience who seemed absolutely confused by the piece, as it is clearly the type of music that repeated listening enhances. For me, Varèse is an incredibly underrated composer and this performance of Hyperprism once again asserted the power and impact of his music. Varèse was not a melodic composer, but his music is almost elemental in nature and thereby deeply affecting. The musicians were able to emphasize this, and Hyperprism, which can be performed in a mechanical way that leaves no room for affect, received the performance it deserved.

Ionisation, a piece for 13 percussionists, was at the time of its première in 1933 described by one critic as “being scored for various Gatling gun species of percussion, a dolorous and quaintly modulated siren, sleigh bells and an ingenious instrument that imitated the voice of an anguished bull”. Thankfully, the piece has since received many more favourable reviews, and with good reason. Like Hyperprism, Ionisation is proof of how dynamic and exciting Varèse’s writing for percussion instruments was. It’s a piece that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout – not because of any melodic lines or particular motifs in the music, but because there is something primal and energetic about it. Slagwerk Den Haag were more than up to the challenge of performing this piece, with absolute precision and dedication.

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