Thursday, 27 September 2018

Thomas Adès. LPO season opener : Stravinsky Adès Lutosławski

Continuing the London Philharmonic Orchestra's year-long Stravinsky series at the Royal Festival Hall, Thomas Adès conducted Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements,  Lutosławski Symphony no 3 and his own In Seven Days.  Adès has sometimes been a conductor who puts more into his own works, which is perhaps fair enough, but this was a superb Stravinsky - full of vigour, but perhaps even more pointedly, shaped with an understanding of the structure of the piece and how it works as a coherent whole. The Symphony in Three Movements  operates like a kaleidoscope, with quotes from other works, notanly the Rite of Spring, appearing, fragmentizing and re-surfacing in new combinations. As has been said many times, it's a bit like the cinematic use of collage, where different frames are put together to create a new whole. Stravinsky would have been well aware of Sergei Eisenstein, so it's perhaps no accident that snippets of music planned for use in the film of Franz Werfel's The Song of Bernadette  appear. In musical composition, collage creates impressionistic density, images proliferating in layers and patterns.  Stravinsky suggested that some images were inspired by war : hence the brutal, stomping march that evolves from the "primitivism" of the Rite of Spring, ritual now a force for destruction not regrowth. The inner movement is brief respite before savage, angular ostinato figues return.  One might, perhaps,  read into the piece insights into Stravinsky's predicament, looking back on his past and anxiously ahead, in exile, but the energy of this performance was such that it wholly convinced on its own terms.

This idea of music as collage continued with Adès's own In Seven Days, subtitled "piano concerto with moving image". Ten years ago, when it premiered with Nicholas Hodge and the London Sinfonietta, it was presented with video accompaniment by Adès's partner Tal Rosner, the visuals were given equal billing to the music, to the detriment of the music. Freed of the clumsy caricatures of the video, the piece revealed its true colours.  Bouncing, vibrant staccato and twirling traceries of woodwinds suggest freshness and light.  Passages where clusters of small, rapid notes evoked stars in the universe, perhaps, or city lights at night – it doesn’t matter either way as both catch the fragmented, flickering mood of the music.  A beautiful setting for Kirill Gerstein's rich, deep chords, rumbling at the lower register like some force of nature.  The brass and winds behind him provided another texture - long, rising lines - before the tiny fragments Gerstein played, each note cleanly defined and shining.  The title In Seven Days refers to the seven days of Creation. Each “day” represents a stage in the formation of the universe, though perhaps it’s best not to be too literal: the impression of a universe being created is what matters. Thus the rushing forces towards the middle section and the moment of mysterious calm which seemed to resonate into infinity.  Gerstein's playing in the final section was beautifully assured : no visual images are needed to evoke the sense of some magical dawn materializing in our imaginations.  A sudden, unexpected end, hinting at more to come. Visuals better suited to the music might help, but not the originals.

To my eternal regret, I turned down a chance to hear Witold Lutosławski conduct his Symphony no 3 in 1992, but fortunately it is now established canon and performed by other masters.  Adès has  high standards to meet, but this was very good.  For his publishers, the composer wrote "The work consists of two movements, preceded by a short introduction and followed by an epilogue and a coda. It is played without a break. The first movement comprises three episodes, of which the first is the fastest, the second slower and the third is the slowest. The basic tempo remains the same and the differences of speed are realised by the lengthening of the rhythmical units. Each episode is followed by a short, slow intermezzo. It is based on a group of toccata-like themes contrasting with a rather singing one: a series of differentiated tuttis leads to a climax of the whole work. Then comes the last movement, based on a slow singing theme and a sequence of short dramatic recitatives played by the string group. A short and very fast coda ends the piece."  But within that such originality !

Startling chords announce its arrival.  These form a sharp outline, containing  the individual instrumental groups in the orchestra which operate almost in free form between the punctuation points that hold them in. The woodwinds test and tease, strings tiptoe tentatively, celli tracing elliptical figures.  As the winds break out of formation, percussion attempts control, but the multiple voices in the orchestra remain irrepressible, even when trumpets scream like klaxons.  Zig zag figures, darting forth and flying free. The tension between forms seems to shape the piece as much as the forms themselves. Quieter passages heralded a change of direction : longer, more deliberate liness stretched out, tiny fragments of sound meeting loud chords : a cataclsym where bells and sirens screamed, and timpani thundred. I lovced the way the LPO played the riot (of sorts) that followed, fragments sharp yet sparkling, building up in force.  Towards the end an anthem seems to emerge, rising above and beyond. At last, the startling chords are stilled. 

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