On the eve of the Musikfest Berlin, two chamber music programmes ushered in the 19 days of the annual late summer festival with mammoth electro-acoustic works old and new. Whereas Maerzmusik, its sister festival held in the spring, focusses on the cutting-edge and contemporary, the Musikfest traditionally kicks off the new concert season with an impressive array of international ensembles and orchestras championing new work as well as uncovering hidden gems.

Isabelle Faust © Peter Adamik | Berlin Festspeil
Isabelle Faust
© Peter Adamik | Berlin Festspeil

The festival opened officially on Saturday evening with a performance of Wolfgang Rihm’s 1982 epic Tutuguri. The previous night, violinist Isabelle Faust and the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo presented ambitious works for instrumentalists and electronics by Luigi Nono and Philippe Manoury, written 25 years apart. Philippe Manoury’s 2014 composition Le temps, mode d’emploi explored the sonic possibilities of the piano and live electronic manipulation.

Isabelle Faust’s performance of Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura was an extraordinary time capsule back to the work’s première in 1988. Commissioned by Gidon Kremer, the piece was written for the Berliner Festwochen, the Musikfest’s predecessor. Then, as now, it was performed in the Philharmonie’s smaller Kammermusiksaal. In his work, Nono made the most of the hall’s unique 360° layout, and exacts particular spatial demands on its performer – Nono described the piece as a “madrigal for many travellers”.

The work is divided into six sections, with each part distributed among six music stands across the stage and throughout the auditorium. At the Philharmonie, Faust, as Kremer once did, entered into the rear stalls, and between each part moved from one music stand to the next in a manner dictated by Nono (variously, he instructs the performer to wander “suddenly, as if seeking”, “as if unsure”, or “with no constraint”). In a mischievous gesture, two additional music stands are also placed throughout the auditorium, but never performed at.

Nono’s violin writing is minimal, consisting of drones, harmonics and occasional violin stabs. It is intertwined with a pre-recorded tape part, composed by Nono at the SWR electronic studios and mixed live by André Richard. The spirit of Gidon Kremer haunts the tape recording, which uses incidental sounds as well as snatches of the violinist improvising in the composer’s studio. Nono’s aphoristic sound design avoids the electronic futurism of many of his contemporaries in favour of a restrained ‘less is more’ approach, with powerful effect.

Faust played the role of the directionless wanderer with poise and quiet charisma, drawing us into the work’s enigmatic drama. She never sought to overshadow the work, instead taking her place within Nono’s disintegrating sonic montage. Faust has described the work as chamber music. Indeed, at the Philharmonie, the real magic of the piece consisted in the dialogue between Faust’s violin and the ghostly echoes of Nono’s electronics.

The performance’s ritualistic theatricality, historical recollection and electronic apparitions made for a spiritually-charged evening. Yet the power of Nono’s piece is no conjuring trick. With its simple, powerful gestures and unfussy use of technology, this is a masterpiece of understatement that wears its 25 years lightly. At the Philharmonie, Faust created a remarkable moment of profound stillness.