Christophe Bertrand – Vertigo

Took a couple days off to relax after an arduous semester and job reached their close, but now I am back to write about the contemporary French composer Christophe Bertrand’s masterwork for orchestra, Vertigo. This piece is for two pianos and orchestra and is one of the best orchestral pieces I know of. Please, do yourself a favor and listen to this piece. It brings intense blocks of sound, sweet harmonies, mesmerizing rhythms, chaos, lush textures, and many other seemingly contradicting characteristics together into one amazingly elegant 20’ long package. Because of the length of this piece, I have opted to create a bulleted list of my comments on this piece that are separated into two different sections that are focused on specific moments in the music and overall takeaways.

 

 

Specific Comments:

  • The first section of this piece is very sustained harmonically with subtle, but prolonged changes. The first moments of the piano parts are continuous half step trills doubled in a much more augmented form by horns. The half steps are met with a tone a whole step lower which reassembles how the half step is heard because before it was an austere half step, but now it is a minor tone cluster. This process continues many times through the section and held notes are bent further and further out from their starting position. The different rhythmic patterns that circle out of phase with each other make constantly unaligned permutations of the same material. All this makes for an incredibly diverse, yet minimal texture.
  • The organized disorder at 3’05” is amazing! Reminds me some of moments from For Grilly by Franco Donatoni and Machine Language by Sam Pluta. 
  • At 4’27”, the music takes on an incredibly impressionistic harmony that is simply gorgeous. The way Bertrand paces the music to keep the listener waiting for so long for some true consonance and then gives it so fully at this moment makes it an incredible moment.
  • 5’20” has some really nice lines in the piano parts. The material from the organized disorder is back in spirit, but the sustain pedal makes the previously chaotic sound float instead.
  • The contrast of the sustained harmonies in the horns at 6’08” with the strings essentially feeling out of key with them is amazing. The “wave” section that occurs 30” later puts the horns in conflict with the other instruments more as they crescendo out of sync from the waves of other instruments move up and down through their registers.
  • The stair step effect created during the stairstep section at 7’43” is an awesome sound. How it proliferates into the string parts about 20” later is really incredible.
  • The music has such a strangely impressionist feel around 9’30” and I just want dwell in it all day.
  • Around the 10’ mark, the material of 5’20” returns in spirit but is colored differently with the more active orchestration. A very cool moment.
  • Around 11’30”, the horns once again conflict the orchestra.
  • Really enjoy from 13’45” to 16’35”. The way he stacks rhythmically dissonant phasing figures on top of each other in the piano parts to make more or less a rhythm cluster makes what is the often machine like sound of minimalism feel much more natural. The scales between the different harmonic zones of these phasing patterns offer a nice relief to keep the music fresh to the listener. I enjoy how Bertrand expands the importance of these scale diversions by adding both to the duration of this intruding section and the density of its orchestration.
  • The sustained tone cluster at 16’55” is wild. I love how he is able to let melodic material expand between the pianos and strings. He brilliantly expands the tone cluster with additional instruments that build to rich harmonies at 17’52” like those at 9’32” and 10’50”. He returns to downward scales that at their most intense, but the way he eventually lets fleeting impressionist resonance emerge after such a violent episode is truly masterful.

General Thoughts

  • Surely captures the essence of Vertigo well. So much is disorienting in the music rhythmically and the generally downward aim of the pitch material makes the music definitely brings out the feeling of falling. Even the “waves” create the feeling of someone trying to not fall over.
  • The orchestration in this piece is immaculate.
  • Definitely a milestone in the output of Bertrand, showing new heights of his mastery of sound and displaying maturity well beyond his age. This piece is easily a new favorite of mine and will be listened to many more times no doubt.

What did you think of the piece? Feel free to comment with your thoughts below. Enjoy the music!

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