Chamber Symphony, Op.2
Jeu de Cartes
Hidden Love Song [LPO commission: World premiere]
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Martin Robertson (soprano saxophone)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 30 January, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
An enterprising concert with a difference, one juxtaposing modern and contemporary ‘classics’ – along with a world premiere – to enticing effect. Not so enticing, even so, as in the original programme layout – which framed the contemporaneous Adès and MacMillan works with not unrelated ballets of Satie and Stravinsky in a suggestive arch format.
That meant the commission from Mark-Anthony Turnage was no longer at the centre of proceedings. His first as the LPO’s Composer in Residence, Hidden Love Song is a restrained but hardly un-intense meditation for soprano saxophone and an orchestra rich in the plangent tones of cor anglais and bass clarinets; as also the ringing sounds of tuned percussion and an effective contribution from harpsichord in what is Turnage’s first use of the instrument. A ‘love song’ for the composer’s fiancé, the cellist Gabriella Swallow, it embodies both a musical translation of her name and also a poem by Auden in its brief but eventful course: the saxophone first among equals in music that, expressively speaking, often simmers but never erupts. An attractive piece that may yet take on a greater impact shouldTurnage place it within the context of a larger whole. Eloquent playing from Martin Robertson, and a response from the LPO suggesting that it has taken Turnage’s music firmly to its collective heart.
Both dating from 1990, and also launching the high-profile careers of their respective composers, the two other recent works could hardly be more contrasted. Thomas Adès’s Chamber Symphony is Schoenbergian in conception and formal dimensions, but not in intent. Rather, Adès’s often oblique but always defined musical syntax binds the fragmentary ideas and disparate textures into an assured continuity; the relatively extended opening section moving purposefully through ‘slow movement’ and ‘scherzo’ before salient motifs are distilled in an exquisite coda. No less engaging for all its apparent detachment, the work is fully characteristic of its composer in its manifest refinement and subtlety: qualities not always to the fore in what seemed a well-prepared but rather lacklustre performance.
Where Adès draws his listeners into a web of discreet elusiveness, James MacMillan fairly bludgeons them into submission in The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. Admittedly, the depiction of a seventeenth-century Scottish woman tortured, then burned at the stake for witchcraft can hardly afford to be self-effacing. And, heard on its own terms, the long opening accumulation of intensity – spilling over into the central onslaught, then recalling the initial music in expressively heightened terms before the finger-pointing final crescendo, is forcefully sustained and powerfully direct. Whether this entitles so overtly derivative, even meretricious a succession of musical gestures to be considered intrinsically ‘good’ might be thought to be missing the point – but, durability being concomitant on quality, needs tobe considered. The orchestra certainly gave its all throughout, and anyone hearing a contemporary orchestral piece for the first time were at least given an unequivocal starting-point.
Whether as conductor or compere, Marin Alsop leaves no doubt as to her commitment to the work at hand. She made the point that Satie’s proto-surrealist ballet Parade (1917) revolves around a single pulse, though whether this serves either to unite or inhibit the musical stream of consciousness that ensues was not fully answered by a performance that brought out passing humour at the expense of deeper or more ambiguous emotions.
Caution was also a factor in the account of Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes (1936) that ended the first half. As much a ‘dance symphony’ as a ballet (and thus a pointer to its composer’s future direction), this is music whose formal dislocation needs audibly to add up if the whole is to be more than the sum of its parts (as in a game of cards?). Alsop injected a fair measure of characterisation into proceedings, but the first two ‘deals’ sounded haphazard rather than spontaneous, and the tonal punning of the final ‘deal’ felt less unexpected than inconsequential.
In their very different ways, moreover, both these ballets embody a ‘nightmare scenario’ that is less specific but no less real than that being portrayed by MacMillan – yet, by appearing to avoid it, they succeed in bringing it into focus more unnervingly than any amount of expressive overkill ever could.