This Sunday, pianist Karim Said returned to the Southbank Centre to put Arnold Schoenberg under the microscope for a third and last time. Performing as part of the International Piano Series 2012/13 and the cataclysmic Rest is Noise festival, Said’s concerts have focused on the genesis of the Second Viennese School. Each event included an introductory talk with Sara Mohr-Pietsch where the musical works were discussed in the context of Alex Ross’ award-winning book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007). There have been a number of mini-series taking place under the Rest is Noise banner, but none more enticing than the ominously entitled “The Art of Fear” series, of which Said’s concert this weekend was a part.

Karim Said © Aiga Ozo
Karim Said
© Aiga Ozo

The links between Ross’ chapter “The Art of Fear” and Said’s programme were a little tenuous. While Ross focused on the struggles of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in Stalinist Russia, this collection of music tended to feature artists who had escaped such regimes by fleeing Europe. There were exceptions to this in the form of Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez, who remained in their home countries during the Second World War. Yet, the programme was not designed to showcase artists who were victimized by aggressive dictatorships; rather, it centred upon tracing the lineage of Arnold Schoenberg’s serial legacy.

In fact, the tenor of the introduction by Said and Mohr-Pietsch was not so much “The Art of Fear” as “The Fear of Art”. The need for composers of serial music to establish systems of order at times of chaos would seem natural, but ironically this persistence with abstract forms has led such composers to be castigated. Voicing their desire to carve out a space for this repertoire in our concert halls, Said and Mohr-Pietsch challenged the popular perception of Second Viennese School music as impenetrable. With examples from Said on the piano, the audience were encouraged to hear lyricism and “Viennese charm” in cryptic clusters of notes. Similarly, his illuminating tour of a “prepared” piano (courtesy of John Cage) attempted to dispel visions of cartoonish anvils dropped wantonly on keys. Instead we were asked to hear such experimentations with sound as invitations to a meaningful discourse between composer, performer and audience.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Pieces, Op. 33a and Op. 33b (1928–1931) were a captivating opening to the concert. Composed shortly before Schoenberg’s immigration to the United States, these two pieces combine his twelve-tone technique with expressionistic and even neo-classical elements. Said’s superb command of line ensured that dissonance and angularity were rendered with the utmost elegance. Webern’s Variations for piano, Op. 27 (1936) received a more scientific treatment from the performer, but this brought about thrilling dynamic contrasts and crisp turns of phrase. Having studied a score with Webern’s handwritten performance instructions, Said allowed the music to “sing” and “sigh” in a refined execution that retained vestiges of Viennese classicism.

Schoenberg’s dedication to the act of creating music – at times of war, personal crisis and ill-health (not to mention when leisurely basking in the Los Angeles sun) – is a staggering thing to behold. It left a strong impression on the American composer John Cage, who met Schoenberg soon after he arrived in the US. Cage eventually discarded the Schoenbergian models of highly organised pitch structures and sought to tinker with sounds in themselves. In The Perilous Night (1944), he prepared a piano with nuts, bolts, rubber, bamboo, wood and weatherstripping so as to recast the instrument’s sonic identity. The première was described wryly by one critic as sounding like “a woodpecker in a belfry”. Indeed, the array of minute sounds that emerged from the piano betrayed vulnerability, fluctuating incessantly and only driven on by lucid rhythms and ordered phrasing. Said prepared this piano using various alternatives to Cage’s specifications, including an unidentified object from YO! Sushi. His performance was at once sensitive, alluring and sharp-witted.

With Notations I–XII for piano (1945) we were projected into the provocative and meticulous world of Pierre Boulez. “Any musician who has not felt... the necessity of the dodecaphonic [twelve-tone] language is OF NO USE”, was his damming remark at an early point in his career. Notations combine a stringent set of serial principles with an imaginative expressive language that draws on Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen. This varied and theatrical world was brilliantly animated by Said, with improvisatory flair in the fifth, Doux et Improvisé, and a portentous “bass drum” resounding from the bottom keys of the piano in the ninth, Lointain – Calme.

Also present in this fantastic programme were two works by the lesser-known composers Roberto Gerhard and Stefan Wolpe. Said proved to be an excellent spokesperson for their works, enlivening Iberian rhythms in Gerhard’s twelve-tone 3 Impromptus for piano (1950) and relishing the discrete Webernesque gestures in Wolpe’s unpublished 3 Pieces for youngsters (1950). Clearly a gifted educator as well as a performer, Said will certainly have a lot to offer music culture in future years. It is a rare occurrence to find concerts that are marked by both creative insight and intellectual precision, and hopefully we can look forward to more of them from this artist.