Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Review: LSO Barbican Hall 12 October 2010 Siem, Dvořák, Janáček

Sasha Siem: Trickster
Dvořák: Violin Concerto
Janáček: Glagolitic Mass

Colin Davis conductor
Michael Francis conductor
Anne-Sophie Mutter violin
Krassimira Stoyanova soprano
Anna Stephany mezzo
Simon O'Neill tenor
Martin Snell bass
Catherine Edwards organ
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra

How do you make meaningful contact between new music and non-specialist classical audiences? The LSO/UBS Soundscapes commissioning programme is based on the principle that there is a young generation of composers out there who won't see it as a compromise to their artistic integrity to go against the Modernist rhetoric of their teachers and produce something palatable. And true enough, there are a good number of young composers who thrive in this sort of situation, but while exposure is always good, I'm not sure they are being put in the best light. The commission stipulates a limit of five minutes, ensuring that the work will be dwarfed by what follows. The première is also insulated by the fact that it is led by a different conductor, as if to ensure that the programme proper is not tainted by the association of new music.
In the face of all these constraints, both practical and artistic, Sasha Siem has made the most of the opportunity offered by the commission. Her work 'Trickster' makes a virtue of its short span, it is punchy and full of surprises, but not over ambitious or straining against the 'audience friendly' requirements. In fairness, the musical material is slight, and there is often a sense that the continual repetition of motifs is only to fill the time rather than to further any minimalist agenda. But what it lacks in thematic ingenuity it makes up for in drama and in subtlety of orchestration. She likes the device of interrupting pianissimo chords with full orchestral tuttis and visa versa. She is also adept at creating large scale orchestral textures in which every player is doing something both unique and essential. There seemed to be everything but the kitchen sink in the percussion section, despite the fact she was only writing for two players. In sum, a successful fulfilment of a commission with questionable aims, and a frustrating suggestion that Siem has much more to say but was being denied the chance.
It was good to see Michael Francis on the podium for this work. London audiences have few chances to hear the work of the generation of talented British conductors who are now in their 30s because, surprise surprise, Germany and America offer them the chances that they don't find here. Francis is up there with the best of them, and this score really gave him a chance to shine. Every bar seemed to be in a different asymmetrical metre, and he took it all in his stride.
Dvorak's Violin Concerto, in my opinion, fully deserves its obscurity. The themes are hackneyed, the orchestration is serviceable at best, and the structure manages to be both morbidly formulaic and waywardly incoherent. Anne-Sophie Mutter evidently disagrees, and made a passionate argument for the work's virtues with this performance. There is a lot of Bohemian folk-fiddling in her playing, more I suspect than the composer would have sanctioned. She also made a big thing of the abrupt gear changes, suddenly launching into a new theme at an unexpectedly fast (and occasionally slow) tempo. I don't find her tone particularly elegant, but the grainy, guttural sounds of her lower register fits well into the rustic feel of her performance. She also has an impressive knack of creating a wide, embracing tone at the lowest end of the dynamic spectrum. That is a real asset in the slow movement, and is also a big help in combating the sullen acoustic of the Barbican Hall.
Speaking of which, the idea of performing the Glagolitic Mass here seems counter-intuitive to say the least. Does the hall have space for a choir? No. An organ? Nope. A reverberant acoustic suitable for a mass setting? Forget it. And yet, the performance of the Mass in the second half was a real triumph, and to a certain extent that was thanks to the hall rather than despite it. Having the huge forces of the orchestra and the choir in such close proximity, both to themselves and to the audience, seemed to intensify the experience. Many of the movements end on a climax that is suddenly cut short. But by not having to wait for the decay, the continuity with the following movement was all the stronger. And there was nothing wrong with the electronic organ; it had all the power you could want, and Catherine Edwards rendition of the solo movement came close to upstaging the entire choir and orchestra.
But everybody excelled in this performance. The orchestra performed with the kind of searing intensity they usually reserve for Gergiev. The choir coped well with the arcane language, and managed to hold their tuning even in the loudest passages. The four soloists also proved equal to the task. Simon O'Neill again demonstrated why he is becoming the tenor of choice for all the supercharged roles. He was always in tune, with a round yet penetrating tone, and most importantly, he was always audible, even when the full orchestra and choir where going full whack.
There is no sign of Colin Davis letting up I'm pleased to say. It isn't an easy piece to conduct, the Glagolitic Mass. The frequent changes of tempo and mood need somebody with years of experience in the opera pit. And the sustained intensity of the work needs energy and stamina reserves a conductor half his age would struggle to muster. But he continues to produce wonders with the LSO. Long may he continue.
Gavin Dixon

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