Saturday, 30 January 2016

Raskatov Green Mass London Philharmonic Jurowski

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6
Raskatov: Green Mass (world premiere)

Elena Vassilieva soprano
Iestyn Davies countertenor
Mark Padmore tenor
Nikolay Didenko bass
Clare College Choir, Cambridge
Vladimir Jurowski conductor
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Alexander Raskatov (pictured above, image M.F. Plissart) is best known in the UK for his opera A Dog’s Heart, staged at ENO in 2010. The music there is anarchic, stylistically diverse and bleakly comical at every turn. But there is another side to the composer, a spiritual depth that informs his religious music, especially his choral works. The style there is unified and focussed, still distinctive, but refined in a way that his more overtly dramatic orchestral works are not.
Those two sides come together in Raskatov’s Green Mass, premiered this evening by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. It’s a huge work, 80 minutes of music for large orchestra, choir and four soloists. The piece explores two ideas, a setting of the Mass ordinary for these huge forces, and a celebration of nature, as expressed in poems by Blake, Georg Trakl, Velimir Khlebnikov, Apollinaire and Francis of Assisi, interspersed between the Mass movements. Raskatov is often accused of incoherency, so there is a clear danger here of the piece sounding like two separate works spliced together. In fact, it is impressively coherent. Raskatov’s trademark eclecticism is apparent throughout, and in every moment it feels like he is reaching out to find a new effect or musical device to deploy across the performing forces. But by doing this as much in the Mass movements as the poem settings, an uneasy, and paradoxical, continuity emerges.
Even so, the work also gives the impression that it is based on a more simple Mass setting, subsumed within the more complex orchestral and choral textures, and periodically rising to the surface to offer spiritual guidance amongst the chaos. The Kyrie opens with a simple three-note figure in the choir, each note held by the orchestra to create a simple dissonance: the two aspects of the work seem to start from a single source, and as the movement continues, the choir maintains the simplicity, while the orchestra increases the complexity and uncertainly beneath.
Blake’s “The Wild Flower’s Song” is set here for countertenor, the ever dependable Iestyn Davies. Here, for the first and last time, Raskatov indulges in pastoral tone painting, with the woodwinds singing birdcalls and fluttering in the breeze. The Gloria remains upbeat, the tone, if not the style, approaching Carmina Burana. Mark Padmore then sings Traktl’s “Lebensalter”, his German pronunciation a better match for the text than the rhythms of Raskatov’s setting.
“Clotilde” by Apollinaire is sung by soprano Elena Vassilieva. She is also the composer’s wife, and Raskatov regularly writes for her astonishing vocal abilities. She is a modern-music soprano in the Pierrot lunaire mould, and this movement displays her extraordinary vocal acrobatics in the upper register. Vassilieva must be well into her 60s, but it is difficult to imagine any other singer, whatever their age, matching this. The final song “Preghiera” of St. Francis is set for the four soloists, accompanied only by a collection of wind chimes, set in continuous motion by electric fans pointing upwards from beneath. It’s an eerie and magical effect, evoking nature, but in an abstract way ideal for the context.
In the final two Mass movements, the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei, the fog lifts and a more straightforward, consonant style emerges, especially in the choir, which was often supported by radiant chorales in the brass. What is Raskatov trying to tell us here? That the religious dimension of the work redeems all? It is difficult to see how this fits into the environmental theme. But then, the two ideas, the liturgical and the natural, are so closely interconnected throughout the work, that, in this optimistic ending, it feels like there are no losers.
The London Philharmonic gave an excellent performance. Despite the huge orchestra, filled with unusual instruments, balances were always finely judged.  Vocally, the performance was less secure. The four soloists made for a curious ensemble, Vassilieva’s coloratura sitting uneasily with the purer tone of Iestyn Davies, Mark Padmore and bass Nikolay Didenko. But this was in the spirit of the piece, just another stylistic juxtaposition for Raskatov to work with. The composer stymied a proposed second performance of the work, by an American orchestra, on the grounds that they could not provide a professional choir, so it was surprising to see the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge singing this evening. The young choristers handled the unusual techniques and textures well, although it sometimes seemed that the composer had a more bottom-heavy, Russian sound in mind. All of the vocalists were in the choir stalls, the soloists there presumably because the huge orchestra left no room for them at the front of the stage, and all were amplified. This seemed like a last minute solution to a balance problem, one that would have taken a larger stage and a large choir to resolve otherwise.
The concert opened with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, an obvious choice, but one that in retrospect only went to demonstrate the pastoral tone painting that Raskatov largely avoids. A pared-down London Philharmonic performed with a large tone, but with Jurowski maintaining disciplined tempos throughout. A mix-and-match approach to instrumentation saw the otherwise modern band accompanied by natural trumpets and period timpani in the storm, the former elegantly crisp, but the latter somewhat tubby. A competent performance of the Beethoven, but one that seemed to acknowledge that it was there mainly as a support act.

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