The basic architecture of Eˆtvˆs’s The Sirens Cycle is simple, yet classic: three parts each devoted to different responses to the legend of the
Sirens, whose singing is so lovely that those who listen are lured to their deaths. Seduction and destruction: opposite poles eternally pulling together
and apart. The first part is based on James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the legend is retold in Joyce’s highly unusual syntax, where words fragment
and language is subsumed by sounds that aren’t necessarily coherent but generate fleeting images. Tosh, perhaps, but oddly compelling. Indeed, abstract
sounds amplify meaning. What to make of lines like “Chips … Horrid and gold flushed more” ? Eˆtvˆs replicates Joyce’s choppy phrasing with flurries of
syllabic sound. The word “Chips” is projected as a high-pitched gasp which claws at the ear, so the rounded “o” sounds in “horrid” and “gold” and “more”
seem to churn around on themselves. Or lines like “A jumping rose on a satiny breast of satin, Rose of Castille, trilling idolores”? Eˆtvˆs breaks the
words into tense, choppy figures, deconstructing the idea of satin and roses.
Images of bronze, gold and roses recur, linking the passages together with a kind of inner logic, highlighted by Eˆtvˆs’s setting, as idiosyncratic as
Joyce’s poetry, for that is what it is, ideas evoked not by figurative meaning but by allusion. Thus the third section in the first part “O Rose! /Castille
the morn is breaking/ jingle jaunten jingling coin rang /Clock clacked.” Crazy, zany rhythms, almost joyous, yet brought down to earth by a sudden drop in
the timbral temperature: a hard ending to flights of fancy. Similarly, the “Clap-clap, Clip-clap, Clappy-clap” of the sixth section where energy is
abruptly cut short. “I feel”, the line drawn out, going silent, then snapping back. “So sad”. Joyce mentions “Liszt’s Rhapsodies” and Eˆtvˆs creates a
spooky nocturnal waltz. Wittily, he captures Joyce’s bizarre wordplay, “my epp ripff taph/ Be pfrwritt”.
Although Barbara Hannigan was scheduled to sing, I was thrilled to hear that Piia Komsi was stepping in at very short notice indeed, for Komsi’s voice is
phenomenal, capable of extremes of pitch and textures beyond the range of most, combined with extraordinarily crisp articulation. Her voice is almost
superhumanly elastic, her diction precise even in phrases as convoluted as those thrown at her by Joyce and Eˆtvˆs. She embodied the Sirens, supernatural
beings who defy the boundaries of Nature. Komsi’s death-defying flights up and down the scale could drive one mad with rapture. Komsi is a vocal gymnast,
but so poised that she can make the ethereal sound perfectly natural.
And thus the Interlude, by which Eˆtvˆs separates the Parts of the Siren Cycle. In this first interlude, the Calder Quartet created whooshing
sounds, suggesting movement within a compressed range, like wind channelled through a tunnel. An image of time travel ? We fly into the ancient world, with
Homer’s verses in Greek, intoned with gravitas. Again, Eˆtvˆs captures the metre of the poet’s individual language. The lines seem to curve upon themselves
like sonorous echoes. The Sirens (or rather Komsi and the Calder Quartet) seduce in honeyed tones: Komsi’s voice warms sensuously, the violins, viola and
cello singing along with her, in luscious chorus. Significantly, Eˆtvˆs breaks off from the Siren’s song with a short interlude where the strings sing
troubled foreboding. Tough old Odysseus, despite his resolve, longs to listen.
Franz Kafka’s story from 1917, Das Schweigen der Sirenen “Um sich vor dem Sirenen bewahren” supplies the text for the Third Part of
Eˆtvˆs’s Siren Cycle. Another change of literary syntax: Kafka’s lines are more prose than poem. His handling of the subject is at once more brusquely down
to earth, and yet more horrifying. Odysseus escapes the Sirens by stopping his ears up with wax. He’s tied to the mast so he cannot break free and join
them. But the Sirens have eine noch schreckliche Waffe als den Gesang, n‰mlich ihr Schweigen, (an even more terrifying weapon than song, namely
their silence). Odysseus thinks he’s outsmarted the Sirens but perhaps it is they who have outsmarted him by withholding their song, leaving him with his
illusions. For a musician, that’s a an astonishingly ironic solution. It thus casts the whole Siren Cycle as a meditation on the nature of song
and art, and the absence thereof. This also connects with the references to song in Joyce’s text, the Rose of Castille being Balfe’s operetta, the cry
“Martha” in Part 1 section 5 being Flotow’s Martha and, of course the snatch of Liszt rhapsody. What, then, is the mood in this final part of the
cycle? Its rhythms are sturdier than the skittish First Part, yet also oddly nostalgic. Are we to think of popular music wafting all around us, even if
we’d like to remain aloof? Komsi’s voice takes on a soubrettist tinge. Is she coquette, destroyer or Muse? No easy answers. But that is the beauty of
Eˆtvˆs The Sirens Cycle : there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, or ear.
Purposefully, this recital began with Eˆtvˆs’s Korrespondenz (String Quartet no 1, (1992) which the composer describes as “a mini opera for string
quartet”, since it’s based on the correspondence between Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The son was lonely, in Paris. The father withheld news of the
death of his wife, whom the son loved dearly. Deception, even though well meant: the ingredients of psychodrama. The first violin (Benjamin Jacobsen) and
the viola (Jonathan Moerschel) talk at each other rather than to each other. Their music seems to connect but there’s a palpable gulf. One of them is
singing, but the other refuses to hear. It’s The Siren’s Cycle, in microcosm. Separating the two, defusing the dynamite, so to speak, the
Calder Quartet played Debussy String Quartet in G minor op.10.
Piia Komsi – soprano; Calder Quartet.
Peter Eˆtvˆs: Korrespondenz; Debussy: String Quartet in G minor Op.10; Peter Eˆtvˆs: The Sirens Cycle for string quartet and soprano
Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 1st October 2016.
image_description=World Premiere by Peter Eˆtvˆs, Wigmore Hall, London
product_title=World Premiere by Peter Eˆtvˆs, Wigmore Hall, London
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio