Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil
Allison Bell (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 12 December, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
To introduce the concert, the London Philharmonic’s music director Vladimir Jurowski gave an engagingly direct and useful introduction to what are, in effect, Gérard Grisey’s ‘four last songs’. Apart from pointing out that the auspicious date of this concert – 12.12.12 – would not occur for another century and that if you reversed the order of the first 12 to 21, time (according to the Mayan calendar, which will have a lot to answer for if the world makes it to 22.12.12) may have come to an end, Jurowski laid out a few guidelines as to how we might best listen to Grisey’s gently apocalyptic, hugely effective masterpiece about the passage from death to new life. Grisey was a pupil of Dutilleux and Messiaen, and at IRCAM became deeply immersed in the science of acoustics. He died suddenly in 1998 at the age of 52 just after he had completed this work, in every respect his swansong.
The music makes abundantly clear the extent to which Grisey was driven by the nature of sound, and it became equally clear in this performance that there was nothing in his astonishingly refined score that he hadn’t heard – not a microtone was wasted. The wonder is, though, that his deconstruction of sound is hugely expressive, enhanced by his choice of highly-charged texts for the four chants – ‘The Death of the Angel’ (Christian), ‘of Civilisation’ (Egyptian), ‘of the Voice’ (ancient Greek) and ‘of Humanity’ (Sumerian). The music ruminates on the text rather than setting the words.
Allison Bell adapted her voice from a purely instrumental tone to blossoming out of the chamber ensemble (with saxophones, tubas and much percussion) to hypnotic effect. The players, working often at the subliminal edge of audibility within a highly-wrought range of extremely muted colours, caught the elemental unease and expectancy under Jurowski’s eloquent direction.The second movement, ‘The Death of Civilisation’, the text for which is taken from a museum catalogue of funeral inscriptions (some missing, some partly obliterated) carved on an Egyptian sarcophagus, became a fractured, elegiac vision of what has formed us, with Bell’s mesmerising half-spoken recitation of the text floating on the ensemble’s creeping rumblings of unknowable history, a powerful piece of musical imagery. After the fourth section, from the Sumerian version of the Flood myth in the Epic of Gilgamesh, there comes a sort of lullaby, indicating rebirth, which sealed the impact of this very beautiful, mystical 40-minute work.
It was also an inspired piece of programming, tracing the same darkness-to-light trajectory as Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, except that where the Grisey had nailed its muted, minimalist colours to the mast, the Mahler was as abandoned and emotionally extreme as I’ve heard it. Jurowski took some risks keeping the ferocious energy and tension of the first two movements on the boil, but he and his LPO really delivered. For a start, the brass were consistently assertive, even abrasive, with the tuba injecting a savage oompah in the first-movement funeral march, the irony of which Mahler would have surely appreciated, and the opening trumpet reveille (thrillingly played by Paul Beniston) was like an electric surge.
There was no end to the detail and precision moulding Jurowski’s nakedly subjective reading, for instance the second subject that seemed to come, Schoenberg-like, like air from another planet, or the timpani ghosting the trumpet’s opening motto like a conjuror doing a disappearing act; and for all its tumult, Jurowski correctly sensed that the music is continually pulled towards fragility and spectral regret. He also pulled off the difficult feat of making the equally stormy second movement a sort of alter ego to the first, with Mahler moving his easel to get a new perspective on his tragedy. Again the playing was magnificent, with the ten double basses on the left of the platform completely separated from the brass giving a living-presence, antiphonal spread of sound – the ‘lost’ cello theme hanging over the abyss of the soft timpani roll was unforgettable – and for all the music’s formal definition, there was a sense of achievement denied in its brief major-key peroration.
Like at a funeral where the mourners can’t wait to get to the wake, the scherzo seethed with greedy life and easy sentiment, with some splendidly wild brass-playing and flirtatious woodwind interjections. The rapturous horn solo was wonderfully played by David Pyatt (newly engaged by the LPO as co-principal horn) at the front of the platform (something that Mahler experimented with but didn’t take into the published score), making him a pensive, detached observer of the feverish high spirits. The Adagietto, taken at a serious sehr langsam, became much more than a caressing, romantic interlude; it achieved closure on the previous movements, casting a spell of forgetfulness so that the cheery rebirth in the finale of the Adagietto theme came as the most distant, refracted memory. Mahlerians know well the disjunction, sometimes dysfunction at work in this symphony. Jurowski’s genius was to enable some sort of connective narrative, which he did with visceral, incandescent brilliance, reflected in the LPO’s thrilling playing. Full of character and insight, this was a gripping performance.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)
- Southbank Centre