Symphony No.1, Op.9
Veni, veni Emmanuel
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Colin Currie (percussion)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Clarke
Reviewed: 10 February, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London Queen Elizabeth Hall
The concert itself was fascinating, a reflection of Alsop’s questing spirit. The LPO was on form, relishing the opportunity to explore Barber’s First Symphony (a work Alsop has recorded for Naxos). Concert hall surroundings immediately posed questions of scale, though – was the huge, sweeping opening simply too much for the Queen Elizabeth Hall? It certainly put the ululating second section into fine contrast and was thankfully not indicative of any propensity towards over-hefty fortissimos.
Alsop seemed to want to play up the Sibelian influences (Barber had been analysing the latter’s Seventh Symphony at the time of composition), giving the whole a rather imposing, grantic scale. Most impressive, perhaps, of the orchestral playing was the Adagio section (the symphony is in one movement), with its lovely oboe solo (Ian Hardwick) and the almost-as-expressive cello lines. But it was Alsop’s tracking of the work’s organic growth that outshone any individual contributions.
James MacMaillan’s Veni, veni Emmanuel (1991/2) is the closest thing I can think of to a modernist ‘hit’. It has had hundreds of performances. Again, our soloist (percussionist Colin Currie) has recorded this work for Naxos. His closeness to the work is obvious from his sheer confidence (he strutted from one side of the platform to the other like a proud peacock). It‘s all part of this work’s ‘theatre‘ – it is no accident that it was the work chosen to crown the BBC Symphony Orcherstra’s MacMillan Weekend at the Barbican in January 2005, again with Currie as soloist.
MacMillan’s Catholicism dwells at the heart of Veni, veni Emmanuel, which centres on the period between Advent and Easter. The titular Plainsong plays a great part, albeit in fragmented form. Throbbing heart-beats of Christ permeate the music’s interior. Currie clearly loves the physical aspect of this music – the primal, dare I say, almost Pagan element – no wonder this percussionist has his own fan-club! Hearing it again in Alsop’s hands, the score’s Romantic elements seemed more to the fore (the section around the solo violin and marimba, for example). The work’s theatrical side mentioned earlier came into its own at the end, when Currie ascended (symbolically?) to a platform at the back of the orchestra to provide the final bells (amongst prevalent orchestral tinklings). This piece cannot fail to make its effect. What the more conservative members of the audience made of it, I can only conjecture…
The most famous symphony in existence graced the second half. The LPO seemed crowded onto the platform – this was to be no period-influenced performance. Alsop’s gap-less fermatas materialised – so, alas, did a certain scrappiness in the strings. In keeping with the opening, there was no let-up for any contrasting themes, giving the entire first movement (exposition repeat duly observed) an impressive core-strength whatever its moment-to-moment failings.
The rich string sound for the Andante con moto was impressive; the ensuing lack of charm and occasional ragged woodwind ensemble, less so. A rapid ccherzo (the word ‘marziale’ sprang to mind!) and equally rapid trio (it could easily have become a scramble if the LPO had not been on its toes) led to a fairly shadowy transition to the finale. Like the finale itself, this transition was more an indicator of potentialities rather than a deliverer of Beethoven. The huge harmonic build-up failed to gel, just as the finale, a kind of dance-like march, sagged at times.