World premieres that occupy the second half of a concert are pretty rare these days, so there was understandable interest in Speranza (2012) – the latest and most ambitious in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s now extensive list of orchestral works. With its inspiration in the poetry and poetic thinking of Paul Celan, moreover, this promised to be a compendious undertaking from a composer who, now in his early fifties, is well placed to offer a summative statement from the central stage of his career. Such can at least be gleaned from his having titled each of the five movements “Hope” in five different languages – imparting a conscious worldview to a piece whose overall achievement, ultimately, falls short of its underlying ambition.
The work is symmetrical in that the outer movements are the longest and the central one the shortest. The first movement, ‘Amal’ [the Arabic for “hope”], deploys a Palestinian anthem in music which proceeds from its memorable ricocheting opening chords towards a fitful culmination; not for the only time in this work, the thematic interest is largely allotted to woodwind and brass (pointed up by the resourceful contribution from percussion), with the strings most-often providing an atmospheric harmonic enhancement yet too rarely engaging in a fully integrated discourse. The second movement, ‘Hoffen’ [German], makes plangent allusion to an Israeli children’s song – initially entrusted to the duduk (an Armenian instrument) then migrating across the orchestra in a fantasia-like process which, however, fails to builds on or even maintain the momentum of its predecessor.
As if realising the need to break out of this preponderantly ‘medium slow’ music, the third movement, ‘Dóchas’ [Gaelic], is a violent scherzo exhibiting Turnage’s familiar driving rhythms which, along with its hard and often brittle sonorities, creates an impetus vividly offset by the fourth movement, ‘L’espoir’ [French], a slow and ethereal intermezzo that predicates timbre and texture to a new and provocative degree in this composer. The fifth movement, ‘Tikvah’ [Hebrew], is an eloquent threnody – not least in its plaintive use of a Jewish folk song – so it’s a pity that it fails to build to a tangible climax and, in context, cannot make for a satisfactory formal or expressive rounding-off of the whole. Equally surprising is that the near-50-minute journey should have ended much as it began – seemingly denying the possibility of the aspiration one might have assumed to be Turnage’s ultimate intention, but which instead has remained tantalisingly out of reach.
Make no mistake – Speranza is a serious statement by a composer with the substance and technique to bring it off. That, at least on this first hearing, it felt no more than the sum of its most-impressive parts is not the fault of the London Symphony Orchestra – which responded to Daniel Harding’s always-attentive direction with that corporate virtuosity it rarely fails to summon on the big occasion. One was left with a work that is neither inherently symphonic (interesting that Turnage should have envisaged but failed to realise Speranza as an unbroken continuity) nor whose movements are sufficiently contrasted overall to create unity out of their diversity. That the attempt was made is nevertheless its own justification.
Although it did not exactly complement the new work, the first half undeniably provided its own rewards. Lars Vogt seldom disappoints in the standard repertoire, and his account of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (1800) was full of felicitous aspects – among them an impressively cohesive take on the first movement’s bold cadenza with its even more audacious segueing into the coda, then a slow movement making the most of subtle differentiations in dynamics, and a finale whose tonal sleights of hand were tellingly subsumed into the uninhibited resolution. Harding’s accompaniment was at times a little stolid, but it hardly seemed to affect Vogt – who responded with an encore, a melting and spellbinding rendition of a Chopin Nocturne.
Harding was more successful in a reading of Sibelius’s The Oceanides (1914) which not unreasonably emphasised formal control over atmosphere in what is admittedly the composer’s most overtly colouristic work. Less spellbinding than it can be, the climax was hardly wanting in expressive power, while the coda had conclusiveness the more telling for its brevity.