A packed Barbican Hall gave a heartfelt endorsement to both parts of this stimulating programme of similarities and contrasts. James MacMillan’s All the Hills and Vales Along is described as an oratorio. The texts are five poems of Charles Hamilton Sorley killed in 1915 at the battle of Loos and offer a bleak commentary on the futility and cost, human and otherwise, of the Great War; in occasionally uncompromising language they detail the inexorable trudge of the conflict, the noise, the grief, the sense of isolation within a crowd but also occasional glimmers of hope.
MacMillan’s music is often very striking, opening with a string shimmer that depicts a nervous calm before a storm, with very little vibrato to give an eerie quality. Gradually the beat of a drum is heard. To this mix is then added the muted forces of a brass band – the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain – all its members playing with huge commitment. The chorus sings the words of the first setting – the title of the work. The London Symphony Chorus was on remarkable form, diction superb, and with great dynamic control. The words are tinged with caustic humour. Ian Bostridge got the second movement, ‘Rooks’. The third setting, with its almost violent exploration of the various sounds string instruments can make, contrasted with an airy passage played by solo violins, viola and cello, accompany a reflection on death and the numbers involved. The fourth finds the tenor angry – Bostridge was in his element, declaiming the text with vehement force and bitterness. Finally ‘Germany’, a reflection on the enemy, to appreciate that the men of their forces are in a similar predicament and that their country had a flourishing cultural history.
Then a blistering performance of Shostakovich’s monumental Fourth Symphony – a work he “voluntarily” shelved in 1936 following his “officially sanctioned” denunciation following Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. That it only achieved its first performance in 1961 still seems astonishing. The abrupt and unsettling switches of tempo and mood were deftly negotiated by Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO was admirable. Everyone deserves a mention but the critical contributions of Rachel Gough on bassoon and Christine Pendrill (cor anglais) were notable, as was the mercurial playing of the lower strings and harp – particularly in those strange sections pitting unusual instrument combinations against the mechanical woodblock, castanets and side drum. Exhausting, unsettling and exhilarating.