Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Symphony No.9 in D minor
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 9 July, 2009
Venue: St Paul's Cathedral, London
This year’s City of London Festival closed in the awesome location of St Paul’s Cathedral, an acoustic that gives as much as it takes but, which, for the most part was a suitably spiritual setting for music by Arvo Pärt and Anton Bruckner.
Pärt completed his Cantus shortly after Benjamin Britten’s death in 1976. Scored for strings and bell, although the refrain leaves in no doubt Pärt’s sincerity and his sadness at a fellow composer’s passing, the piece becomes mind-numbing in its reliance on ‘bare essentials’; over 10 minutes (a performance longer than usual but not sounding particularly slow), one’s attention wandered to admire the remarkable building we were sitting in.
Indeed, nothing was particularly ‘slow’ in this concert, save the trio of the scherzo, which limped along, lacking any malevolence, melody too consciously moulded; indeed, had we been in the Barbican Hall, Valery Gergiev’s direct account would have made more impression. Not that he’s new to this score – insomniac music-lovers may recall a Rotterdam Philharmonic account broadcast during BBC Radio 3’s “Through the Night” programme some years ago. He has the grasp of the whole as Bruckner left it; and in conducting the symphony in its unfinished state the three movements worked as a related trilogy in terms of symmetry and similar timings (22 minutes for the first, 23 for the third), the final bars of the closing Adagio not wallowed in and reminding that there should be a massive finale to summate things (which there now is, of course, due to Bruckner’s folios having been located bit by bit and welded by dedicated editors into a performing version).
Gergiev didn’t let St Paul’s acoustic dictate his approach. That’s a fair-enough approach, but it would have been fascinating to hear Bruckner 9 in sync with the several-second reverberation (rather longer than in Bruckner’s beloved St Florian, silent bars in the Eighth Symphony exactly mirroring the reverberation in that edifice, Pierre Boulez has calculated) rather than sometimes fighting it (the stamping scherzo was blunted and messy as a consequence). The outer movements fared better (Gergiev tailoring fermatas somewhat to the resonance), atmospheric in suggesting depth and distance, thrilling in the development of the first movement, but curiously sentimental in its wake; and if the third (here final) movement lacked gravitas initially, it opened up to moving and trepidation-filled expanse.
Throughout, the LSO was hard-working to keep together (mostly achieved) and concentrated to preserving a balance to give equality to Bruckner’s scoring (again mostly achieved in terms of overall balance). That much detail was inaudible – not so much the Bruckner-cliché of a “cathedral of sound”, this was a ‘wall of sound’ – is a consequence of this location and also depending on where you’re sitting in that string instruments ‘separate’ from their neighbours leaving (unintended) solo lines against (also unintended) mush, although individual woodwind and brass lines carry well enough and, here, Wagner tubas sounded glorious.
But it was also an experience and a visit to St Paul’s for something musically epic can be something above and beyond anything in a custom-built concert hall.