London Philharmonic/Alsop – Texan Tenebrae … The American Four Seasons … Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Texan Tenebrae [UK premiere]
Philip Glass
Violin Concerto No.2 (The American Four Seasons) [European premiere]
Symphony No.3, Op.36 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)

Robert McDuffie (violin)

Joanna Woś (soprano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 17 April, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Marin Alsop. ©Grant LeightonIt was supposed to be three premieres – a UK first for the Turnage, the Glass receiving its first outing in Europe and a world first in Górecki’s 4th Symphony. It didn’t happen. Henryk Górecki is ill and symphony hasn’t yet been completed. Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” took its place, this performance dedicated to the victims of the recent plane crash which claimed the lives of the Polish president and many high-ranking members of the government and the military.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s brief Texan Tenebrae was first performed by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski in Tenerife earlier this year. It’s described as an “independent fantasy” on one of the main musical ideas of his forthcoming opera “Anna Nicole” – based on the life of the American model Anna Nicole Smith. The 9-minute Texan Tenebrae is typical Turnage, marrying contemporary traditions with jazz motifs (the scoring includes two saxophones) with a prominent role for percussion. It was played with punch and rhythmic precision by the LPO under Marin Alsop.

The subtitle of Philip Glass’s Second Violin Concerto, The American Four Seasons, derives from a request by Robert McDuffie for a companion piece to accompany Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, although the seasons in Glass’s piece are unmarked and there’s no real indication in the music where each appears. The most unusual aspect of the concerto is its construction. Instead of the traditional cadenza Glass has prefaced each movement with a short solo piece (named ‘Prologue’, ‘Song No.1’, ‘Song No.2…) which he feels can be played together if removed from the concerto. At around 40 minutes it outstayed its welcome at times. Scoring is sparse for small string orchestra and synthesizer (virtually inaudible throughout the first two movements). Fans of Glass will no doubt enjoy the familiar arpeggiated writing particularly in the final two quick movements but it’s the solemn Movement 2 which holds the attention most, allowing McDuffie’s violin the opportunity to soar.

It was perhaps fitting that Symphony of Sorrowful Songs should be heard at a time when the Polish nation has been in mourning for its dead. Whatever its musical merits, Górecki’s lament for man’s inhumanity to man has made a huge impact with the public and its popularity shows no sign of abating. Alsop conducted a performance that was obviously deeply-felt and the LPO responded with sumptuous string tone. Joanna Woś had reportedly travelled to London from Poland by car (due to the unavailability of air travel) a journey of some 20 hours and the lack of preparation was obvious, her eyes firmly glued to the score throughout. She also struggled with her pitch throughout the second movement where the long sustained lines provided real problems. But there was a warmth and humanity to her singing which compensated for the technical shortcomings; the final movement’s grief and final acceptance movingly conveyed.

A minute’s silence followed.

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