The LSO and Barbara Hannigan at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Barbara Hannigan (soprano)

Barbican Hall, 10th January 2019

  • Sibelius – Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 105
  • Hans Abrahamsen – let me tell you
  • Nielsen – Symphony No 4 “Inextinguishable”, Op 29

I am pretty sure that Simon Rattle’s Sibelius cycle with the CBSO from 1991 was one of the first classical music CDs that I bought, (there was a bit of vinyl prior to this and I have never been what you might call an early adopter). So there was a time when I liked, or thought I should like, the Sibelius symphonies and Sir Simon’s way with them. No longer I am afraid. I can get the ebb and flow, the organic construction, the elemental, the river and sea analogies, but I just start to zone out after a while and it all turns into a bit of a drone. Maybe Sir Simon’s now generally heavier readings, deliberate pacing and eye for detail overwhelmed the piece but it did nothing for me.

What a confession to have to make. I understand that the Seventh Symphony, completed in 1924, was itself something of a mould breaker what with its one unbroken movement, its constantly shifting tempi and its dogged reliance on C major and minor. And the fact that he wrote it when p*ssed up to his eyeballs. He went on to compose the tone poem Tapiola and an arrangement of the Tempest suite and a few chamber pieces, and destroyed the manuscript of an Eighth Symphony, but by 1929 he was done, publishing nothing for the next three decades, although I gather he tried, (as well as knocking up some tunes for his Mason mates). Retirement, after a lifetime of excess, was clearly good for him since he got to the ripe old age of 91. I can see why the Finns are so proud of him but I am with those who hear the radical conservative in his music rather than the conservative radical.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle, let me tell you, from 2012-13, was composed with Barbara Hannigan’s voice in mind. He wasn’t the first contemporary composer to do this and he won’t be the last. For her soprano is a most extraordinary instrument. The piece is divided into three parts with seven sections in all and the text, created by Paul Griffiths from his novella of the same title, is drawn entirely from the 483 words that Ophelia delivers in Hamlet, though with very changed meanings and tones. This Ophelia speaks of memory, of music, or love and she doesn’t end up face down in a pond, hair artfully arranged amongst petals. The music of Mr Abrahamsen is (micro)-tonal and largely consonant, but he does slice it up in unusual ways harmonically, whilst still offering a clear, if shifting, pulse behind the glittering, glassy melody textures, driven by percussion and high strings. As most informed commentators have said, it is wintry music, no question. Now I can’t pretend the music leapt out at me on first hearing but it did create a solicitous backdrop for that voice and there is no doubt I will be listening again.

Whether she is singing Britten, Berg, George Benjamin, Gerard Barry, Ligeti, or any number of other modern and contemporary composers it has not yet been my pleasure to hear, she is utterly beguiling and totally convincing. Her soprano is light and clear, but immensely powerful, and she can act. I had another look at Lessons in Love and Violence, this time courtesy of the BBC broadcast, and this time therefore up close rather than the dolls-house view from the ROH amphitheatre of the live view. Firstly a reminder that it is a very, very good opera and secondly there are times when, as Queen Isabel, Ms Hannigan, IMHO, is up there with the best of stage actors, whilst still managing to sing exquisitely, with meaning, to the back of the auditorium.

In this piece HA has served up all manner of opportunity for BH to show off that emotional connection, with suspensions, tremolos, swoops and soars, mournful ululations, floating high notes, even Monteverdian rebounds or, to use the technical term, “stile concitato”. It was a big success when to first appeared, the recording with Andriss Nelsons and the Bavarian RSO went down a storm, and the audience lapped it up at the Proms a couple of years ago. Easy to see why HA, BH, Sir Simon and the LSO fully deserved the applause.

The Nielsen was an altogether jollier affair than the Sibelius (Danes being, in the Tourist’s experience, somewhat more upbeat company than Finns). And for me, Rattle’s deliberate way, and the LSO’s accurate playing, served this much better than the Sibelius. Nielsen, as we all know, liked to chuck it about a bit and here in the Fourth with his defiant sub-title and programmatic exhortation – “in case all the world were to be devastated by fire, flood or volcanoes and all things were destroyed and dead, nature would still begin to breed new life again….” – he starts as he means to go on.

I can see why some might not take to the Nielsen’s progressive tonalities, awkward, clashing sonorities, his shifting themes, big, bold rhythms and mix of C19 and C20 musical languages. For me he is, in contrast to Sibelius, the conservative radical. Tonalities don’t always comfortably agree with each other, but always resolve in some way. I like the way all the ideas jostle for space, and there are many interesting and unusual textures and colours, which often bear an uncanny resemblance to the work of composers from earlier and later decades. One foot in the past and one in the future. If you started with Brahms and Grieg, mashed it up with a hefty squirt of Mahler, a dash of Shostakovich, put it in an oven marked Bartok and Schoenberg, whilst still remaining in a kitchen built by polyphony and Bach, you might have the recipe.

He went through a wobbly phase through the turn of the century, listen to the Second Symphony, and he certainly played up to the stereotype of the troubled Nordic creative. Whilst recognised in his lifetime, it took some a much longer before his distinctive voice was recognised internationally, if not in Denmark, where his songs remain part of the country’s fabric.

The symphony has four defined movements, but these are unbroken, and it takes a few listens to realise that themes that emerge in each of the movements do, in fact, share material. The opening Allegro opens with a stirring crossing of woodwind and strings and from which emerges a hopeful woodwind whistle in E major, which returns in the final movement. After numerous dramatic rises and falls the climax of this movement also anticipates the final resolve. The Poco Allegretto which follows is an impish folk tune, subject to various treatments. The Poco Adagio starts with descending strings set against an intermittent timpani thud, turns a bit darkly pastoral, before building to another foretaste of the climax. The final Allegro starts with scurrying strings, before some Hollywood gush, some chaotic martial cross rhythms, a calmer phase before the message of hope, if we can just endure, is hammered home.

The Fourth was written in 1916. Nielsen had gone into WWI a proud nationalist like Sibelius and so many artists and intellectual across Europe. It didn’t take him long, amidst the carnage of industrialised slaughter, to change his mind. This was his response. “Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable”. A fair motto to also attach to the composition from his countryman a century later.

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