If one of Simon Rattle's intentions as Music Director of the LSO is to take it to non-standard concert venues, then this programme in Turbine Hall at Tate Modern was a notable statement of intent. Timely, too, in that the corpus of works standing to gain from this endeavour is not inconsiderable through such high-profile reassessment.
Admittedly the event did not get off to the most auspicious of starts with Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964-5), of which Rattle has been a champion throughout his career. This is music whose monumentality calls for a cathedral or even out-of-doors perspective and this performance duly had its measure right from the baleful emergence of the first section through the mantra-like woodwind melodies and resounding crescendos of those that follow. The fourth section disappointed in Rattle’s reluctance to let gongs and tam-tams resonate sufficiently before the response from winds and percussion but, as the final section reached its imposing culmination, there was no doubting the majesty of this piece’s overall conception. A pity, then, that some of its impact and most of its subtleties were lost amid Turbine Hall's oddly deadening acoustic, in which the middle frequencies too often vanished in a blur of undifferentiated resonance; with Messiaen's exquisitely judged dynamics being similarly leavened off within the generalised and amorphous ambience.
Fortunately this venue proved more responsive to those very different spatial requirements of Stockhausen's Gruppen (completed in 1957), which has retained much of its capacity to provoke more than six decades on. Rattle has tackled this epic (in its conception if not duration) before, with John Carewe and Daniel Harding – notably during the 1950s’ instalment of his Towards the Millennium project of the 1990s, when it was given twice at the Royal Festival Hall and, more intriguingly, at two different venues in Birmingham's International Convention Centre complex. The present performance nevertheless benefitted from the three ensemble being situated in visual proximity while also separated spatially within the same acoustic confines.
Assessing any rendition of Gruppen depends in large part on just how much the listener hears at any given moment. Certainly the present account (the second of two) conveyed a great deal of its timbral and textural intricacies, afforded necessary definition through the astute placing of each orchestra such that those motivic links (or should that be 'trails'?) between phrases which, in turn, coalesce into larger paragraphs were most often perceptible in real-time. Any overarching or more cumulative continuity proved rather more elusive – in part because Stockhausen's concern with textural stratification means that ideas seldom take on any greater expressive continuity, but also simply through the impossibility, in a public arena such as Tate Modern, of eliminating extraneous noise in order for the music to emerge on its own terms. What was not in doubt was the technical quality of this performance, Matthias Pintscher and Duncan Ward partnering Rattle in securing playing as finely coordinated as it was audibly committed.
Two other points are worth considering. Rattle's comment (in his introductory remarks) that Gruppen is as much an installation as a piece of music is emphatically not the case, as an installation exists to colour and even articulate the performance space but not permeate it with the amount of sonic information that Stockhausen supplies here. By the same token, Rattle's invitation to those present to walk around Turbine Hall during the playing was well-meant but misguided, as the complexity of Gruppen is necessarily absorbed from a single listening position so as to ensure consistency of focus. Innovative and experimental as this work is, it is no novelty and should never be treated as such.
All of which does not detract from the worthwhile nature of this event in seeking to extend the potential of the concert-going experience. The issue of the performance space as being integral to the music-making has been in abeyance for far too long: hopefully Rattle and the LSO have this in mind should their much-touted new concert hall come to fruition.
- The above review is of the second of the two same-day presentations (afternoon and early-evening), one of which was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 as a deferred relay at 8.10 p.m. on the day of performance (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- It is also streamed in binaural sound on the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer from Wednesday July 4
- LSO www.lso.co.uk