Barbican Great Performers 2001-2002 – 14th November


Sonata pian’ e forte
Peter Lieberson
The Six Realms [UK premiere]
Cello Concerto in C
Pierre Boulez
Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by David Robertson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 November, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

French orchestras tend to work to a ’home’ agenda, recordings the only way for us to hear their activities. So it is good to see that Orchestre National de Lyon is undertaking a major European tour, of which this unusual but intriguing programme – ’Voyager’ – was the London leg.

The concert also formed part of the inter-cultural ’Silk Road Project’ founded and actively promoted by Yo-Yo Ma, who premiered Peter Lieberson’s ’concerto’ last year. The Six Realms refers to the states of unenlightenment in which, according to Buddhist teaching, most of humankind lives – though always with the possibility of salvation. The 30-minute work charts an upward traversal of ’The Wheel of Life’ – from brooding introspection (’The Sorrow of the World’), to an angular scherzo (’The Hell Realm’), and a lengthy, often restless dialogue (’The Hungry Ghost Realm’); then through a capricious intermezzo (’The Animal Realm’), and an impassioned soliloquy (’The Human Realm’), to an amalgam of resolute finale and reflective, seemingly fulfilled coda (’The God Realm and the Jealous God Realm’).

One of the interesting aspects of Lieberson’s music is the degree to which he has reinterpreted aspects of his earlier, overtly ’modernist’ style in the more eclectic and approachable – though never facile – idiom of his maturity. The more climactic aspects of this work, in particular, hark back to the rhetorical manner of William Schuman or even Roger Sessions, but suffused with a harmonic richness and textural translucency that is, in the most productive sense, ’post-modern’. The range and subtlety of Lieberson’s writing for wind and, frequently, divided strings, over which the amplified soloist hovers in a final bid for transcendence, testifies to an orchestral mastery that many younger American composers could profitably draw upon.

Interesting that, as an overall performance, Ma was more convincing than in the Haydn concerto he must have played countless times. True, he secured an immediate rapport with the scaled-down Lyon forces, presenting the robust opening ’Moderato’ as chamber music writ large (a string quintet transcription of the work would be worth making). Such dexterity and ease of interplay were not quite maintained over the pensive ’Adagio’ and spirited finale; in part explained by Ma’s reluctance to complement smoothness of expression with greater trenchancy of articulation, especially when Robertson’s lucid and stylish direction offered numerous opportunities to do so.

Spatial music, as an exemplar of music ’in transit’, framed the two concertos. The concert opened with Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sonata, the most influential item from his 1597 collection ’Sacraesymphoniae’. With two four-piece ’cori spezzati’ of brass arranged either side of the Barbican platform, the antiphonal range and delicacy of the instrumentation was well conveyed. Pierre Boulez’s Rituel picks up on space as an integral facet of music, the missing link being Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which would have worked well in context.

As Music Director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain for most of the 1990s, Robertson is no stranger to Boulez’s music, and gave a bracing account that stressed the music’s interaction between the monumentality of its wind-dominated soundworld and the malleability of its movement between the eight instrumental groups. Some over-insistent percussion aside, impeding the music’s progress through undermining the dynamic balance, this was a dedicated performance – a timeless tribute to Maderna, a great conductor and thought-provoking composer.

This was a welcome London appearance from an orchestra of some standing. David Robertson, the Lyon Orchestra’s newly-appointed Music Director, was recently named “Conductor of the Year” by Musical America – on the evidence of tonight’s concert, an award richly deserved.

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