The Discovery of Heaven [London Philharmonic Orchestra commission with support from The Boltini Trust, the Britten-Pears Foundation, and the New York Philharmonic: world premiere]
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
Roderick Williams (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Ryan Wigglesworth [Anderson]
Sir Mark Elder
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 24 March, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Not having had the time to study the score as he would have wished, Mark Elder stood aside from conducting the premiere of Julian Anderson’s The Discovery of Heaven. Ryan Wigglesworth led a virtuoso account of music teeming with detail. Anderson (currently the London Philharmonic’s Composer in Residence) reveals that the starting-points for The Discovery of Heaven are the eponymous novel by Harry Mulisch and gagaku, the ancient Japanese court music. In terms of the score itself, composed for a large orchestra, the first sounds are flurries of activity to breathe the preludial ‘An Echo from Heaven’ into life, a shimmering soundworld. The meat of the piece is ‘In the Street’, angular, pulsating and strident, a diverting palette of colours, piccolo and bass clarinet in tandem, and timpanist Simon Carrington required to double on a steel drum at a couple of points. Musically this is heady stuff, thrilling, unstoppable, until a moment of transcendence introduces ‘Hymns’ and radiant, Tippett-like writing for strings, almost like a rainbow after a storm. These are 22 impressive minutes, the music coming to rest, enigmatically.
At this point violists and second violinists swapped positions to make the latter antiphonal to the firsts, Mark Elder’s preferred layout for the strings, and one recognised by both Elgar and Delius. The latter’s Sea Drift (1906, setting poetry by Walt Whitman) deals with loss and regret, here represented by a pair of love-symbol seagulls, until one is gone; its mate left to reflect on what is no more. Delius’s characteristic languor is present from the off, so evocative, and darkly beautiful. Elder paced the work perfectly, alive to its ebb and flow and its puffing and billowing; reference to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde only intensify the connection to the sea. Just occasionally the full-strength, and excellent, London Philharmonic Choir seemed overloud in fortissimos and not pianissimo enough in the quietest passages. It was powerful though, and compelling, Roderick Williams’s honeyed baritone, effortless projection and impeccable enunciation bringing distinction (as did Pieter Schoeman’s violin solos) to a 25-minute journey that can seem unrelievedly sad (doom-laden bass drum strokes adding to the gloom) until spring-like consolation finally offers some hope. Whether or not Sea Drift is Delius’s masterpiece, this was a winning performance of it.
Mark Elder is a thoroughbred Elgarian, and this account of the First Symphony was as absorbed and ‘put back’ as you could wish for. Yet it was also a little underdone in terms of tempo and passion, especially in the first movement, although Elder successfully integrated the public and private sides of the music. Indeed, Elder had the measure of the work as a whole, somewhat undermined by those in the audience who applauded between movements, disrupting the contemplation of the music and disrespecting the silence it should engender. No worries with the second-movement scherzo, though, which was fleet and fiery, its motifs silkily interwoven, but the sublime Adagio (alas interrupted by someone’s mobile ringing), however beautifully played, didn’t quite go to the special place that it can. The finale had purpose and led to a noble peroration, but without quite capping what anyway had been a too lived-in if thoroughly idiomatic performance.