London Philharmonic/Edward Gardner

Tannhäuser – Overture
Vijay Iyer
Human Archipelago – Concerto for cello and orchestra [world premiere]
Symphony No.5 in D, Op.107 (Reformation)

Inbal Segev (cello)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 1 October, 2022
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vijay Iyer, born in America in 1971 to Indian immigrants, is probably best known in the UK for his jazz work, and the composer-pianist and Yale maths and physics graduate who at one stage considered a career as a scientist is a formidable, award-winning cultural polymath and academic, with what sounds like a cult following in the USA. He has also written much ‘classical’ music, with this Cello Concerto, titled Human Archipelago, in three linked movements the most recent of his big orchestral scores. In his LPO programme note, Iyer cites climate change and mass migration as his inspiration, at which point the listener might become torn between the written word and the music itself, the bane of much new music and a process of explanation that doesn’t rely on the music to tell you what to feel and think.

Iyer, though, having made clear his agenda, has backed it up with music that, say like Sibelius or Britten, strays disarmingly near the remit of speech in an ingratiating use of pattern, repetition and overlapping ideas, sometimes in the John Adams area but low on minimalist attitude, that filters jazz and non-Western music with a restraint that implies big potential. The orchestration sounded traditional, with sparing, often eloquent use of percussion. The most literal aspect of Iyer’s political agenda is the relationship between orchestra, cello and a concertante group of three strings, clarinet and bassoon grouped behind the soloist and referred to by Iyer as “travellers”. They acted as a go-between, their ghostly improvisations sounding like they were there to resonate with the cello and had the effect of softening the impact of Inbal Segev’s role. Her playing was unfailingly persuasive, but the Concerto is not really aimed at showing off Segev’s talent for drama and display. Edward Gardner and the LPO entirely got the point of the music’s stasis and reticence, which makes Human Archipelago more of a poetic comment on Iyer’s sources of inspiration than a plan for action.

At the start of the concert, Gardner made a short speech about the links between Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ Symphony, then went on to lead the LPO through an almost skittish and sinuous approach to Wagner’s Venusberg music in the Tannhäuser Overture, topped and tailed by a sonorous and warm take on the Pilgrims’ chorale. The Mendelssohn was gloriously played, with forward woodwind a luminous presence in the classical-size orchestra, a Scherzo that veered away from fairy-dust towards Mahler Ländler and a magically withdrawn Andante. It would have been entirely appropriate if the Finale had ended with a glorious peroration of Wagner’s Pilgrims’ Chorus instead of the Ein’ feste Burg chorale.

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