Reinbert de Leeuw — Der Nächtlige Wanderer (‘The Night Wanderer’)

Review of Prom 26 concert with Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

The Night Wanderer is a huge nocturnal landscape, with an orchestra of over a hundred. There was even with a small ensemble camped up in the gallery, and a trumpet in one of the boxes. Half way through the work a man with a mallet twice his size started bashing a giant bit of wood. And earlier on there’s a magnificent antiphonal section where four players, on opposite sides of the stage, clapped their slapsticks noisily.

It was quite an experience, needless to say. An immersive, impressionistic symphonic poem that defies comparison. But it’s the kind of thing one can expect from a composer like Reinbert de Leeuw.

He seems to be a typical 60s era rebel, but the kind of equal opportunity rebel one can’t help but respecting, having taken on both the traditionalist and avant garde establishments. No doubt I have some philosophical differences with the chap, but I can’t help but be charmed, especially after reading this by cellist Zoe Martlew:

One of the original bad boys of Dutch new music in the 60s, Reinbert de Leeuw, along with fellow new mu rabble rouser Louis Andriessen initiated a now-famous riot at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam by setting off a bunch of clacking clockwork frogs and other percussive distractors during a concert of Mozart in an attempt to shake up the stultifying musical establishment of the time. Since then, de Leeuw has continued to stoke the flame of musical innovation as pianist, conductor, composer, programme planner and organiser of the highest calibre

I would have wanted to throttle him were I an audience member, but viewed from a good historical distance, I find it really quite amusing.

On top of all that, he’s done some excellent recordings of Erik Satie works alongside soprano Barbara Hannigan. In the late sixties he set up the Dutch Charles Ives Society and co-wrote a biography (sadly not translated) of the great man. Being an Ives partisan myself, I naturally admire him for that.

Anyway, onto the concert. The Night Wanderer is an odd work, based on an enigmatic poem of the same name. The poem is actually read out later in the work. In fact, recordings are used throughout, starting with the opening, faint sound of a barking dog. But the moment when the poem is read is undoubtedly the most effective. A deep, gravelly, whispering voice reads it slowly; the orchestra interrupt once with a screeching, powerful chord. Then after, the orchestra crescendo on these dissonant chords, playing to a steady, throbbing pulse.

But it ends unsatisfyingly, returning to quiet. It is, in a sense, an anticlimactic work. It hits louds moments, for sure, and moments like this imply climax even if it’s never realised. But this is why it’s such a frightening work, an ever weirder walk into the unknown. Anything could happen, even though it never quite does. The piece ends where it begins, with the distant sound of a dog barking.

Listening for a second time, today, via the Radio 3 recording, I found the piece no less tense. The recording is certainly not adequate — it is a challenge to convey the use of space in stereo — but I was surprised not to find the piece irritating on second listen. I somewhat expected to grow weary of the lack of clear direction, the very deliberate ambiguity. I didn’t. I was even surprised at how memorable some of the sections were, particularly a powerful rising violin melody.

(An aside, apparently the work used variation quotations, including by the likes of Galina Ustvolskaya. I suspect, though I may well be wrong, that I heard a partial quotation of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, which is the ultimate statement of uncertainty and ambiguity.)

My hands want to type the word ‘masterpiece’, but being in that fertile stage, wherein one has only recently discovered a love for classical music, I am quite aware of how excitable I can be.

Praise must be given Oliver Knussen for his precise and confident conducting. I tremble to consider how challenging it must be to conduct a work like that, where you not only have a large orchestra in front of you but offstage musicians on the other end of the hall and recordings to play alongside. But Knussen was masterly, of course.

Both Knussen and de Leeuw strike me as wonderful characters too. Knussen with his wintry beard and flame-pattern walking stick (a closet House fan, perhaps?), and de Leeuw, a very slight man, with his floppy hair and drooping moustache.

The audience fuelled my misanthropy somewhat, though. I direct my ire particularly towards whoever started clapping before the piece ended.

But what a place to see it like the Albert Hall — and why on earth can’t there be more like this at the Proms?

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