Thomas Adès triumphs, plus the best of February's classical concerts
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆
Which composer would dare to represent one of Dante’s agonised Circles of Hell with a high-kicking dance that sounds suspiciously like Liszt’s jolly “Grand Galop Chromatique”? Only one: Thomas Adès. As this tremendous, thrillingly played concert from the LPO reminded us, Adès (who conducted the concert with staggering energy) has a way of transforming familiar things so they become hyper-vivid and somehow unfamiliar. We heard many examples of that in his Inferno Suite, drawn from the ballet Dante that Adès composed for the Royal Ballet. For the Ferryman who rows souls across the Acheron, Adès called on Liszt’s sad, lost Bagatelle sans Tonalité, but in this case the homage was unusually straight and sincere. Elsewhere numerous echoes flitted through the music—a nod to Puccini here, a touch of the Dies Irae there, perhaps even a few stings from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Bees.
It was all hugely entertaining, over the top, and at times a bit kitschy - which is fine, as no-one expects Hell to be tastefully furnished. In the other piece by Adès on the programme, the newly composed Symphony drawn from his 2003 opera based on Shakespeare’s Tempest (here receiving its UK premiere) the echoes of other music were much less overt and the moods more subtly shaded, as befits an opera about magical transformations. There was a beautifully stately procession for brass, and a dance for Ferdinand and Miranda where simple common chords appeared in glowingly strange combinations. Shorn of the sometimes wearying vocal acrobatics of the opera, the delicate musical inventiveness of Adès’s opera shone through.
Adès placed alongside each of his pieces another work on the same theme by a giant name from the past, an invitation to compare-and-contrast that only a supremely confident composer would offer. Sibelius’s Overture and Suite no. 1 from his incidental music to the Tempest began with a storm that was remarkably close to Adès’s, though undoubtedly less complex rhythmically. The haunted harmonic see-sawing for the splitting of the oak tree where Ariel is confined was utterly simple in its magic. Like the final piece, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini—a passionate portrayal of a story of illicit love from Dante’s Inferno—it had a straightforward sincerity of utterance. Compared to them, Adès’s wild extremes and shifting allusions felt like a series of brilliant contrivances, which only intermittently took on a power to move. IH
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff ★★★★☆
It’s likely that at the dawn of human history the sounds of nature became the womb of music. Eager to tame or co-opt nature’s powers, people made sounds in imitation of birdsong or falling rain, and over vast tracts of time these sounds were civilised and “musicalized”.
Occasionally nowadays an atavistic soul comes along who wants to put music back in touch with its ancient roots in wind, birdsong, and splashing water. One such is Colin Riley, a composer of amiable eccentricity who’s written works with titles like Rock Paper Scissors and Earth Voices. His latest opus Hearing Places, premiered by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales on Friday, is rooted in the sounds he recorded during a year’s ramble across Wales – though not all of the sounds were primordial. He also recorded the clattering of the Solva Woollen Mill in Pembrokeshire, the vast hum of the Port Talbot Steelworks, and the knocking of small boats in Porthmadog harbour.
All these, plus tricking water in the Brecon Beacons and birds and bells in Denbighshire, were each allotted a movement in Earth Voices. On a screen above the orchestra video images of the locale appeared, while the players engaged in a dialogue with the sounds, often beginning in a very modest way – a lone tuba imitating a foghorn here, a twitter of birds in the woodwind there – and then took on a poetically suggestive musical life of their own.
That sort of response you might expect; what you might not expect was the humour of the piece, as in the second movement where the rattling of moored boats and seagulls’ cries prompted a dance of slouching not-quite-jazzy elegance. The whole thing glowed in this performance by the BBC Now under the intelligent baton of Matthew Coorey.
Surrounding Riley’s pieces were others of similarly ear-tickling inventiveness. Ravel’s Miroirs, in Percy Grainger’s ingenious orchestration for clanging percussion and bells, felt a mite tentative, but its imitation of Javanese gamelan music still charmed the ear. George Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, thrown off with brilliant panache by Freddy Kempf, evoked the metallic din of skyscrapers rising in 1930s New York. Darker in tone was Steve Reich’s City Life which wove recorded sounds and voices of New York – some cheerful, some anxious – into an incessant patter of percussion and string sounds, which in this performance came over as louche and urgent at once. In all it was an evening of aural delights, bold and yet approachable, which reminded us why the BBC’s regional orchestras are such a treasure. IH
Hear this concert later this year on BBC Radio 3
Exaudi: Requiem for Peace, Kings Place, London N1 ★★★☆☆
In many a Russian short-story from the 19th century, there comes a moment when a stoic peasant, whose wife has just died from the lack of rudimentary medical care, declares: “It is God’s will. We Russians were born to suffer.”
That fatalism still courses through the Russian soul, if last night’s “documentary opera” at Kings Place is to be believed. Titled Requiem for Peace, it offered a glimpse into how Russia is viewed by its own citizens, as well as people living in the neighbouring states of Finland and Latvia, through numerous interviews conducted before the war between Ukraine and Russia began. These appeared on a screen along with English surtitles, while the five singers of the vocal group Exaudi sang musical settings of them composed by Eugene Birman, a composer of Latvian descent. All this was plunged in
darkness: the only light came from the big screen behind the singers, which showed scenes of contemporary Russia.
You’d think that in a documentary opera, there would be light and shade and differences of opinion; instead, all the elements were marshalled to hammer home the message that Russia is doomed never to change. The extraordinarily beautiful images were mostly of timeless ‘Mother Russia’: endless birch forests and frozen lakes, viewed with one solitary walker at a distance. When we did see a glimpse of the modern world, such as railway tracks leading over a bridge, everything was decaying and abandoned. Meanwhile the litany of damning judgements on Russia continued. “Russia is a monster that devours its own children… We want someone to take responsibility for our lives.”
Birman’s work, sung with superb concentration and accuracy, felt like a memory of Tchaikovsky’s sacred music – and the powerful bass of Zigmārs Grasis helped the illusion – yet one distorted by expressionist shouts and murmurs, and despairing stratospheric leaps from soprano Juliet Fraser. Sometimes we even heard whistling in close harmony, in a sad parody of church music. Occasionally a more hopeful opinion was heard, and softer images of a Russian spring briefly appeared. But the final message of this powerful if somewhat one-dimensional event was one of fatalism and self-pity, which left one with the thought: if this was Russia’s collective state of mind before the war, what must it be now? IH
No further performances
LSO/Pappano, Barbican, London EC2 ★★★★☆
During those interminable lockdowns when concert life shut down, the consensus was that when it was all over, orchestras couldn’t simply go back to their old ways. The tired old concert format would have to be refreshed, touring would have to be cut back to become more “green”, and programmes would have to become more diverse. Thus far, however, that isn’t how things are turning out. It’s true that programmes are becoming more diverse, but the old war-horses such as Dvořák’s New World Symphony have never seemed so ubiquitous, and touring is back with a vengeance. It’s an uncertain picture, and one exemplified in last night’s concert from the London Symphony Orchestra.
The programme offered one of those shamelessly excessive orchestral show-pieces by Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), yet first came the Ballade in A by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, well on its way to becoming a fixture of concert programmes. And no wonder: it shows Coleridge-Taylor’s gift for huge sweeping melody of a kind that – had he been white and born a generation later – might have earned him a fortune in Hollywood. Even so, it begins somewhere else entirely, in a mood of tense urgency reminiscent of his African-themed pieces. The orchestra and conductor Antonio Pappano (in his first concert as the LSO’s chief-conductor-designate) relished the contrast between these two expressive worlds, and revealed how cleverly Coleridge-Taylor weaved them together.
Before Strauss’s enjoyable mock-heroics, we first had to sit up and be morally edified – by Franz Liszt, of all people, the great virtuoso pianist-composer more known for his colourful amorous life than his moral rectitude. But Liszt was an ardent advocate of social progress, and in his tone-poem Die Ideale (The Ideal), he paints a picture of suffering mankind struggling to reach the perfection it yearns for. You could sense the huge spiritual effort in the oppressed opening section, full of cavernous silences which Pappano drew out for maximum effect, the doleful viola melodies and striking pre-echoes of Wagner’s Tristan expressing a yearning for redemption.
But the urge to morally uplift never brings out the best in composers, and despite Pappano’s and the LSO’s best efforts, the earnest striving and would-be triumphant ending felt forced. It was a relief after the interval to be allowed to romp in the bubble-bath of Richard Strauss at his noisiest and most exuberant. There’s no other piece where eight horn players get the chance to whoop and soar so exultantly, and the LSO’s players certainly seized their moment. But the real hero of this Hero’s Life was the orchestra’s leader Roman Simovic, who threw off the solo violin’s imperious solos (representing the composer’s formidable wife) with fabulous panache. IH
No further performances
The Planets, John Challenger (organ), Salisbury Cathedral ★★★★☆
Holst’s Planets suite is perhaps the most popular British orchestral piece ever written, and yet it never seems hackneyed. The eternal human fascination with the planets serves to keep it fresh, as does the music’s own undoubted genius.
On Saturday night at Salisbury Cathedral, Holst’s masterwork received an intriguing makeover, in the shape of a new arrangement for the cathedral’s own organ, built in 1877 by this country’s most famous organ-maker Henry Willis. In the darkness of the vast nave – with only dimly atmospheric coloured lighting leading the eye up the heights of the vaulted ceiling, and with planetary imagery projected onto a screen – one’s imagination was certainly kindled more than in the prosaic light of a concert hall.
All this led the mind upward and outward, into space. Leading the other way, towards the human significance of planets, were brief poems spoken by their author Martin Figura between the movements that mused on the way planetary influences weave themselves into everyday aspects of our lives. This felt appropriate, as there’s plenty of everyday human expressivity in Holst’s piece; think of those jovial, romping outdoor-parade episodes in Jupiter, so remote from the glacial mysteries of Saturn and Neptune.
This imaginative world seems so wedded to Holst’s hugely colourful orchestration it’s hard to imagine the organ could adequately recreate it. Yet this new version, made by John Challenger, Assistant Director of Music at the cathedral, succeeded remarkably well. Challenger performed his arrangement himself, and thanks to strategically placed cameras peering over his shoulders at his hands, and also at his feet at the pedals, we could see as well as hear just how ingenious his arrangement was. Those hands were constantly flitting between the organ's four manuals (keyboards) to catch Holst’s subtle changes of colour, and occasionally pulling a stop here or depressing a piston there. It was an amazing feat of virtuosity.
As for the music, it took on fascinating new, or perhaps one should say old colours. The famous big melody in Jupiter sounded more like a hymn-tune (which it eventually became); the tremulous sound of “vox humana” stops gave Saturn a different sort of mysteriousness. The scampering sprite-like sounds of Mercury, which you might think would sound dull on an organ, came over vividly. Overall the piece acquired an intriguing Gothic mysteriousness which seemed both interestingly new, and entirely right. The ending of Neptune, where the voices of the cathedral choristers and alto lay vicars led the music into an infinite distance has never seemed so magical. IH
No further performances
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Uchida, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 ★★★★★
Post-lockdown nerves may still be dampening the enthusiasm of audiences, but for certain artists those nerves simply melt away. Wednesday night’s sell-out concert at the Royal Festival Hall was a case in point. On stage was the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which though young has already acquired the kind of aura possessed by much more venerable orchestras. And seated in their midst at the piano, with her back to us, eye-catching in blue and green and silver shoes, was pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who also directed the orchestra.
Uchida has recorded the complete Mozart piano concertos twice, and this evening’s performances of the 25th and 27th concertos were filled with a lifetime’s wisdom. They were immaculate, understated and suffused with that special pearly beauty of sound that has always been her trademark.
Some might say her tone is too unvaryingly soft, but the softness encourages you to listen deeper and notice small but telling things. One was the moment in the first movement of the 27th when the orchestra tiptoes towards strange harmonic regions, an effect Uchida magnified by pulling the tempo back by degrees, and leaving what felt like a huge hiatus (though in fact it was milliseconds) before her own solo. The result was that her own melody seemed to come from some lost and lonely region.
Another telling moment was the very opening of the 25th, which launches with parade-ground grandeur. Some performers emphasise the big opening chords by making a pause between them, some play them in strict march tempo; Uchida and the orchestra somehow managed to do both at once.
The players gathered round the piano responded to Uchida’s urgent hand gestures with playing of lovely, relaxed refinement, full of subtle touches of their own. In the first movement of the 27th, the interplay of the flute, oboe and bassoon players (not named in the programme unfortunately) was so delicious that for a moment I actually forgot about the soloist.
Wonderful though these performances were, they were put in the shade by Schoenberg’s whirlwind First Chamber Symphony, which came between the two concertos. This is music of white-hot intensity, in which every instrumental part is maximally expressive at every moment. It can seem clogged and impenetrable, but in this staggering performance the furious complexity of the music as well as its rare moments of quiet tenderness shone out with perfect lucidity and irresistible force. IH