Twentieth Century Masters: LSO at the Barbican review ****

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London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, Isabelle Faust

Barbican Hall, 14th January 2018

  • Janacek – Overture: From the House of the Dead
  • Elliott Carter – Instances
  • Berg – Violin Concerto
  • Bartok – Concerto for Orchestra

Back to the Barbican for another round with Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO, though this was more familiar ground (for me) compared to the previous outing (Rameau to Mahler: LSO at the Barbican review ***) a few days earlier. And back to my more usual perch. Once again the Hall was pretty much full to the rafters, and, encouragingly, it looked liked a very youthful audience. (Or I am ageing more rapidly than I thought). Anyway, on the subject of age, the thread here was orchestral works written near the end of their lives by these four very different composers. All of which gave a chance for the whole orchestra to shine.

Now the main draw for me here was Isabelle Faust. I think she is probably the best current violinist in the world. Mind you, as is my wont, I have gone all hyperbolic in this claim with little evidence to back this up. So, more exactly, the best violinist I have heard in the past couple of years, based on recordings and her Bach outing last year at the Wigmore Hall (Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin at the Wigmore Hall review *****).

As it happens I saw a fine rendition of the Berg Violin Concerto performed by another favourite violinist in the elfin form of Patricia Kopatchinskaja last year at the RFH with the LPO under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. And I recently invested in the benchmark Levine/Mutter recording, (even though I am not entirely convinced by Ms Mutter). Now I am not going to pretend that listening to Berg comes easily to me, but even I can hear that there is a rich depth in his works from the combination of passion, intelligence, serial technique and romanticism, that rewards persistence. I rashly signed up for a performance of Wozzeck at the Frankfurt Oper a couple of years ago in German with German sub-titles (FYI I don’t speak German). Unforgivably I bought the cheapest ticket up in the gods. It is a wonderful auditorium but I could only see half the stage. That was still enough to be transfixed by an outstanding production. But most of all it meant I had no choice but to get lost in the score. Stunning. Add to this the Lulu in 2016 at the ENO directed by William Kentridge, which I confess was beyond me in parts, but was visually spectacular, and I am now well on the road to Bergian conversion. Mind you, what with his long(ish) musical education under Schoenberg, the proscription of his music under the Nazis and his early death, aged 50, after a bizarre insect biting incident, there isn’t too much composition to get your head around.

Now this Violin Concerto isn’t like others in the canon. It’s tricky for sure, and asks a lot of the soloist, but it isn’t showy. Orchestra and soloist have to mesh together. It is pretty much the last piece Berg wrote and is dedicated to the memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma (Mahler’s widow) and Walter Gropius (Bauhaus founder), who died from polio at 18. Apparently she was a captivating young woman in the manner of her mother.

The two movements are each split into two parts and with the waltz emerging from the material set out in the first movement, and the chorale emerging from the more rhythmic, almost cadenza, in the second movement. This the tempo is reversed in each. I can sort of pick out the established musical structures from within the twelve tone architecture but couldn’t tell you exactly what was going on. Suffice to say this is a dark, brooding, self-absorbed piece for the violinist and Ms Faust seemed to capture this utterly. She seemed lost in music, caught in a trap, to paraphrase Philly’s finest sisters, There are times when the whole edifice becomes just that bit self indulgent but this is where Sir SR’s insistence on picking out the orchestral instrumentation pays dividends. I hadn’t realised how detailed are the parts for harp, clarinet, viola, flute and trumpet were in this piece. I do now.

Which brings me to the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Now this is a piece written with the express intention of letting everyone in the band have a solo, like some prog-rock group in its 1970s pomp, It is an obvious, but still inspired, choice to present to an audience in a first season, and, I would hazard a guess, if you are engaged in a bit of musical team-building. I have Rattle’s first, (I think), stab at this when he was a younger at the CBSO, (though the bargain basement Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra version tops it). Anyway Sir Simon knows his way around it, and it brilliantly matches his predilection for coloration and deliberation.

I am not going to lie. It blew my socks off. There is just so much to listen to here. The first movement strings and brass, coming out of the undergrowth, with the woodwind, led by a solo oboe, getting their turn in the spotlight. The wonderful second movement scherzo with its contrasting intervals, an eerie disco. Next up an Elegia, exactly as it says, with the strings swirling around and up to be met by bold brass chords and a piccolo sticking its little nose in. The second scherzo quotes, mocks and, ultimately, compliments Shostakovich with tuba and harps getting involved, and the final movement works in classic Bartok folky stuff with a gallop to a rousing chorale at the conclusion.

I reckon we won’t have seen the last of this piece, or of Bartok, from Sir Simon and the LSO and it can probably get even better from here. Hopefully too we will see him rework some of his other C20 repertoire. Some more Stravinsky for sure, but I’d loved to hear his latest takes on Britten’s music for orchestra and, please, some, no all, of the Nielsen symphonies.

Anyway the other two pieces in this concert were tried and trusted composers for Sir Simon, Janacek’s Overture From the House of the Dead didn’t quite get the pulse racing in the way the Bartok did, but still suggested what the LSO is heading towards. (I see the House of the Dead will see a new production at the Royal Opera House in the forthcoming season. That has contemporary relevance written all over it). Sir Simon has always championed Elliott Carter and I can see why. This was another of those short, but inventive, comedy pieces that Carter was turning out in his musically fecund 90s and even into his 100s, but it has a strangely, moving ending.

Can’t wait to see what the Scouse Gandalf will programme with his band for the forthcoming season. Hopefully not too much Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius please.

 

 

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