Not your everyday concert programme – and all the more alluring for so being. A buzzing good-sized audience was attracted along, including Alfred Brendel. He was no doubt curious about Harrison Birtwistle’s latest piece, included as part of the Southbank Centre’s weekend tribute to the composer – “In Broken Images” – in the year of his 80th-birthday.
This ingenious mix of works kept the platform arrangers busily efficient. First up, Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, in its original version of 1920, written in memory of Debussy, and scored with exotica such as alto flute and alto clarinet, instruments removed in the 1947 revision. Compared with what it became, Stravinsky’s first thoughts are softer grained if with spiky and solemn aspects already in place, ritualistic too. Yet such formality doesn’t restrict the music’s chameleon qualities, from punchy to marmoreal. If there was the odd ‘off’ moment, the required 24 woodwind and brass members of the LPO reacted with alacrity to Vladimir Jurowski’s clear-sighted direction. The final chorale was soulfully poignant.
Cue a piano and the rest of the orchestra. Harrison Birtwistle’s Responses: Sweet disorder and the carefully careless (2014) was written for Pierre-Laurent Aimard and is watchfully designated as being “for piano and orchestra”, his second such work following Antiphonies of 1992 (which, had things worked out, might well have been premiered by Brendel). First heard just a few weeks ago in Munich (Stefan Asbury conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) and then in Porto (under Peter Eötvös), the quirky subtitle of Responses owes to the architect Robert Maxwell, a friend of the composer’s.
Birtwistle scores for a large orchestra across its hierarchy, including a three-person percussion section (plenty of wood, skin and gongs), two harps and a contrabass clarinet. From the off the music is assertive and vivid, enjoying the propulsion of Earth Dances and the perspectives of Endless Parade. The piano is asking questions of the orchestra; the Responses belong to it. That aspect wasn’t necessarily clear – to me – for it seemed to be more a piece in which the piano is ‘first among equals’, not so much initiating a discussion but mingling its shapely lyricism and more outspoken moments into a dazzling array of orchestral colour, not least from the sonorous and athletic brass – and the (muted) trombones’ loud-as-anything yelps, once experienced, are not easily forgotten.
What was fascinating and deeply involving was the sense of journeying and those detours from it – a ‘secret theatre’ aspect – when the sensation of burrowing underground to a secluded labyrinth was all-enveloping. In music that seems to take its energy from within itself, and in which familiar Birtwistlian ingredients are comprehensively present yet freshly mined, the 27 minutes went by in a flash, the work eventually fading from aural view in a magical long-held dissolve for the strings. Aimard played superbly, one of the team, and is rarely given solo passages (don’t even think about cadenzas!) but with much to do, as has the orchestra as a whole. The score is post-scripted with a quotation from Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann: “symmetrical intervals in the midst of inimitable ornamentation”. Responses is certainly inimitable.
In those few moments following this UK premiere, Birtwistle taking warm applause and generously acknowledging the LPO before doing so, I decided there was an urgent need to hear Responses again and soon (and could have done so there and then), both to relish the music (any misunderstandings of it aside) and to continue to unravel its discourse. Surprisingly BBC Radio 3 didn’t take a relay but fortunately the LPO recorded this concert for its website and maybe beyond that. Watch out for an online appearance: I can’t wait to hear Responses once more. Its next concert outing is in February, the US premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jurowski, already a master of the music.
After the interval Aimard returned for Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques (1956), the piano now placed stage-right and further back, with the LPO ‘reduced’ to seven percussionists and 11 woodwind and brass players, the flautist and two clarinettists given their own space. Messiaen’s obsession with birdsong is a catalogue in itself, 47 of them exampled here. I won’t get into a flap about this piece, but its repetitions (a tumultuous gong crescendo is fine once, but not several more times) and chattering really try the patience. The performance was fabulous, however, Aimard playing quite brilliantly, with selfless dedication, and from memory, with the LPO members scarcely less fine in their precise and vibrant response.
Finally a relatively rare date with Stravinsky’s Orpheus (1947), co-scripted with choreographer George Balanchine and based on Greek Legend, Orpheus’s returning his wife Eurydice from the dead but his failure to heed the instruction not to look at her during the journey takes her back to mortality.
This LPO performance was delayed due to someone’s ringing mobile. Once under way, it was evident that Jurowski had the music scanned fully. Economically scored (for “classical” woodwinds, pairs of trumpets and trombones, four horns, strings, lyre-like harp and with just a few notes for timpani), Orpheus is a beautifully ‘baroque’ score (put viola and cello together, as Stravinsky does, and you have Brandenburg Concerto No.6), looking back to the 1928 Apollon musagète for its lyricism and to Symphony in C (1940) for twisty-turny rhythms. From the cool if sorrowful elegance of the opening, reprised at the close, this for the most part is a subtle and restrained score, demanding the same unwavering concentration as when reading a John le Carré novel.
Somehow, given the demands of the rest of the programme, the Birtwistle especially, the LPO and Jurowski turned in a beautifully judged, sensitive and pristine, account of Stravinsky’s fascinating ballet music that held the attention for its 30 minutes. All in all, this concert was a notable achievement for the London Philharmonic and its conductor.