Christ on the Mount of Olives: LSO at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Elsa Dreisig (soprano), Pavol Breslik (tenor), David Soar (bass), London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey (chorus director)

Barbican Hall, 19th January 2020

  • Berg – Violin Concerto
  • Beethoven – Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op 85

After a somewhat disappointing take on the Seventh Symphony paired with Berg’s Seven Early Songs just a few days previously, and, given the reputation of oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives as a somewhat lesser work from the pen of our Ludwig, the Tourist approached this concert with some trepidation. I have heard the piece but don’t own a recording and cannot claim to know it at all. Well, turns out it’s a belter. Fair enough its not the Missa Solemnis or the Mass in C major (which I happen to prefer), and there are a few routine, by Beethoven’s standards, passages but there are some sublime musical ideas and plenty of drama. Maybe not quite up there with Haydn’s oratorios but running closer than you might think.

LvB started writing Christus am Ölberge, to give it its German title, in 1802 just after he had written the harrowing Heiligenstadt Testament, and was first performed in 1803, though not published until 1811.The libretto comes from poet Franz Xaver Huber, and, in a very human way, deals with the agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest. The tenor takes the role of Jesus, the bass Peter and the soprano a seraph. Even after Christian Schreiber was enlisted to make significant changes to the libretto LvB wasn’t happy with the text, and opinion then and since has tended to look down on the overall tone and structure of the oratorio, with the exception of the gut busting Welten signen choral finale.

The piece suited Sir Simon’s sense of the dramatic and his ability to shape individual sections. Some of the solo and choral parts are really sensational, and, with the LSO seeming to relish the novelty, the orchestral writing was similarly striking. It kicks off with a call to action from the trombones before Pavel Breslik’s vivid tenor sets out Christ’s plaintive plea to God. This was followed by Elsa Dreisig’s lovely soprano, truly angelic, and then the chorus stiffening his resolve. David Soar’s bass in truth doesn’t get much of a look in and the chorus, as soldiers, disciples and the like only really get going in the second half of the story. But, when the LSO Chorus is finally unleashed, all 145 of them, the effect was magical.

Whilst I get why Sir Si whats to showcase as much Berg as he can, him being a fave composer of his, and the Violin Concerto is, similarly a tempting morsel, actually full four course meal with the two movements each divided into two sections, the prelude, then scherzo, the cadenza and finally chorale variations. Indeed when Sir Si was still in Berlin he came over a couple of years back to take it on with the LSO, though then with the peerless Isabelle Faust on the fiddle. That was a triumph as soloist and orchestra made sense of Berg’s most compelling exercise in reconciling romantic diatonicism with twelve note serialism. Here orchestra, conductor and soloist, Lisa Batiashvili, weren’t always quite on the same page, though it was impossible to fault Ms B’s articulate playing which went easy on the vibrato and always sensed the sharp dance that underpin’s Bartok’s tunes.

P.S. Anyone who is anyone in the Western art canon has had a stab at Christ in the Mount of Olives so plenty of choice for the pic above. Though I would give you some Goya though, just because I am, what with all this global misery, going through a bit of a Goya phase right now.

Ligeti, Bartok and Haydn choral works at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Francois-Xavier Roth (conductor), Camilla Tilling, Adele Charvet, Julien Behr, Christopher Purves, William Thomas

Barbican Hall, 11th November 2018

  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Lontano
  • Bela Bartok – Cantata profana
  • Haydn – Nelson Mass

Three composers I like. Three works I did not know. A slightly earlier start. A fine end to a fine day.

When I say I don’t know Liget’s Lontano that isn’t strictly true. In fact, even if you are a Ligeti virgin, there is a fair chance you have heard Lontano. For this is the music famously used to signify Jack Nicholson’s descent into full-on barking psychomania in The Shining film. Lontano, along with Atmospheres, is therefore still probably Ligeti’s most famous work, even though, in the five decades that followed their composition, GL went on to explore many other styles and musical ideas. 

Lontano, in Italian, means “far away” or “distant” as a performance instruction which about sums it up. For this is as “other worldly” as it gets, from a composer synonymous with the term. It is built up from layers of very quiet sound, initially cellos and flutes, from the smallish orchestra. These lines move in different tempos and to different rhythms but they combine, legato, to create Ligeti’s trademark micropolyphony. The crystallisation of these sounds brings out sustained, but shifting, harmonies that are very different from traditional or atonal composition but the overall effect is ravishing. And something for which horror and sci-fi film composers ever since should be eternally grateful. It is eerie, mysterious but utterly compelling. Take the bit where the high violins, barely audible, pulse against the throb of the low brass and wind. Given the score doesn’t really offer any metre as such Francois-Xavier Roth could only really prompt the orchestra. No matter. All the LSO had to do was trust Ligeti’s ear and F-XR’s experience with the piece. How GL knew all of his innovations, not just in these micropolyphonic pieces, would work is an utter mystery to me. Genius.

It was performed by the National Youth Orchestra at this years Proms so its a fairly frequent concert hall visitor. Don’t let it pass you by. 

Bartok’s Cantata profana, which was published in 1930, rarely gets an outing. Lasting only 20 minutes yet still requiring a full chorus and orchestra as well as a bass, (here William Thomas standing in for the indisposed Matthew Rose), and a very challenging high tenor part which pushed Julien Behr close to his limit. It is based on a slightly creepy, coming of age, folk ballad about nine brothers who go out hunting, turn into stags, (which I hope is a rare occurrence even in Transylvania), and then refuse to come home when Father asks them. Heady stuff which Bartok pitches somewhere between his more overtly derived folk driven orchestration and the lusher sound-world of his earlier stage works. The LS Chorus seemed entirely at home with the tricky Hungarian idiom of the text and the awkward contrapuntal textures of Bartok’s score, which divides into 8 parts in the second of the three movements..

That’s the thing with Bartok. It normally takes a few listens for me to get the gist of his music. Like Prokofiev I know there is something there worth working on but it doesn’t always reel me in immediately. I can’t always grasp the line and architecture of the whole work but the rhythms and melodies individually are often arresting. I have more work to do on the popular orchestral pieces, am close to cracking the string quartets, think the solo piano collections are fascinating and would love to see Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The piano concertos and the rest of his chamber music are bit of mystery. Whether Cantata profana on this listening will be added to the to do list is a moot point. 

As an aside if you want a quick burst of Romanian folk filtered through an orchestral lens, look no further than the Concert Romanesc. By none other than Ligeti. A perfect pastiche of a C19 nationalist Romantic tribute. It is really hard to believe this is the same composer as Lontano. 

Not knowing the Nelson Mass, as with any Haydn piece, is no handicap. It’s a mass, sung in Latin, so that’s the text nailed down, it is a relatively small orchestra, (just 4 double basses in the strings, trumpets, timpani and a small pipe-organ here played by Bernard Robertson), and, as usual, Papa keeps his textures homophonic and easy to follow. The Gloria ends with a mighty fugue and the Credo kicks off with an extended canon. What’s not to like? That is not to say it isn’t without drama, the LS Chorus letting fly in the Kyrie and Gloria. Julien Behr was persuasive, as was replacement bass, the ever excellent Christopher Purves. Mozart specialist Camilla Tilling’s soprano lost a little of its silky subtlety though newcomer Adele Charvet’s mezzo more than held its own. Even so there might have been a case for reigning in the 130 strong Chorus a little to offer a little light and shade. 

The Nelson Mass is the third of six that Haydn composed between 1796 and 1802, appearing just after The Creation in 1798. He titled it Missa in Angustiis, “Mass in difficult circumstances”, a reference to Napoleon’s march across Europe. There is a martial quality about some of the music, in the Kyrie and Benedictus for example, but, as usual Haydn can’t suppress his jolly nature throughout. As it happens a few days before its first performance Admiral Nelson (there he is above) secured a famous victory against the French fleet at Aboukir. A couple of years later Nelson went to visit the Esterhazy court and this was performed for him; hence the nickname. 

Britten’s Spring Symphony from the LSO at the Barbican review ***

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LSO, LSO Chorus, Tiffin Choirs, Sir Simon Rattle, Philip Cobb (trumpet), Gabor Tarkovi (trumpet), Elizabeth Watts, (soprano) Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor)

Barbican Hall, 17th September 2018

  • Harrison Birtwhistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII
  • Gustav Holst – Egdon Heath
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage – Dispelling the Fears
  • Benjamin Britten – Spring Symphony

Now here was an object lesson in not doing one’s homework. Benjamin Britten’s music was my first introduction to the classical world and remains one of my all time fave composers, (mind you the list is pretty short). However, I am not persuaded by all of his work, including, I remembered just that tiniest bit too late, the Spring Symphony. So always check that the piece you think you are going to hear is exactly that at the time of booking and always, especially if it is a work of substance as here, listen to it before attending. Both rules ignored on this occasion in the most spectacularly cavalier fashion.

Still it was the LSO. Under the baton of Sir Simon with the LSO Chorus and the combined Tiffin Choirs, Girls’, Boys’ and Children’s. (BD sadly, saddled with tone deaf parents, was never a contender for the first of these crews). And, in the Spring Symphony, three excellent soloists, two of who I knew, Alice Coote and Elizabeth Watts, and one only by reputation, Allan Clayton. All the voices were superb, there are some tricky vocal pyrotechnics required in certain of the poetic settings, and the logistical challenges of getting everyone on stage (or just in front) were adroitly handled. At points the Barbican Hall stage was stuffed to the gills. Sir Simon really does need that bigger stage.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Russian emigre conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who had earlier sponsored BB’s breakthrough Peter Grimes. As so often, writing it took a lot out of BB, three years from start to finish, on and off. He originally intended to set Latin texts against a symphonic backdrop but, as was BB’s wont, he persuaded himself that English poetry would be bettered suited. When BB sets canonic English poetry on a smaller scale the results can be astonishing, Les Illuminations, the Serenade, the Nocturne, Phaedra and, I reckon, the Cantata misericordium. And obviously the War Requiem shows he was a dab hand with large scale forces. But the Spring Symphony doesn’t quite hang together IMHO, choruses and orchestra sometimes at odds with each other.

It is (just about) discernibly a symphonic structure, a la Mahler, the first part made up of five sections (Spenser, Nashe, Peele, Clare and Milton, with various ideas laid out, the second a slow movement with three settings (Herrick, Vaughan and Auden), the third a scherzo again with three poems (Barnfield, Peele and Blake) set to music and the rousing finale, setting Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Elizabethan paean to the month of May, London, to thee I do present. There is lots of invention, texture and tone throughout, BB avoids throwing the kitchen sink at everything, with many passages of light orchestration, and percussion, harp, certain woodwind and brass, especially trumpets, (a theme throughout the programme), all get a good look in. Since all the poems reference Spring, doh, there are plenty of Spring-ey tunes, but also some darker material; this was a message of hope in the aftermath of War but BB recognised not all was rosy in the European garden. It just isn’t an entirely satisfying whole for me.

Sir Simon has always been a dab hand with BB, even from his days with the CBSO, though this was at the more portentious end of his interpretative spectrum. Still everyone really does seem to be having fun at the LSO and the Chorus now that he as at the helm. So maybe I need to cheer up, raise my game and work a bit harder on this particular piece.

The concert opened with a new brass fanfare from Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, a gift to Sir Simon. It was, literally a blast, with a laugh at the end from the sole tuba. This was followed by an excellent reading of Holst’s Egdon Heath. I have always liked Old Gustav’s second most famous orchestral piece after you know what, (which the BBCSO is trotting out soon accompanied by Prof Brian Cox – interesting). That heady mix of Englishness, Ravellian orchestration and a hint of Eastern mysticism draws you in but it takes a conductor of Sir Simon’s insight to really persuade. It is a bit scary, even from the off, with the growling double basses, I for one wouldn’t want to go anywhere near Hardy’s heath based on this music. An elusive string melody is set alongside a sad processional in the brass and some meandering oboe. It never really lands anywhere despite the echoes of a dance, a simple stepwise, siciliano, and it can appear to go on a bit. Not here though.

Dispelling the Fears written by Mark-Antony Turnage in 1995 creates an atmosphere of urban, rather than rural, unease, led by the two trumpets of the LSO’s principal Philip Cobb and the Berlin Philhamonic’s Gabor Tarkovi. The two played pretty close together for much of the piece, creating some stunning harmonies, especially lower down the register, against the usual MAT cloth of Stravinsky, jazz, a whiff of blues, some earlyish Schoenberg. It is quite furtive, never really breaking out, with constant dissonance emerging from clashing semi-tones. There are a few passages of relative peace but mostly it prods and pokes. Like most of MAT’s work it really works though you are not always initially sure why.

So there we go. The LSO and Sir Simon once again showing off the Best of British. With the slight caveat that this may not actually be the best of the best British composer (with apologies to Purcell and Byrd).