LPO Metzmacher Concert – 21st April 2001

Darknesse Visible; Still Sorrowing; Traced Overhead *
Piano Concerto No.2 **
Ein Heldenleben

Thomas Ades (piano)*
Andreas Haefliger (piano)**
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ingo Metzmacher

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 April, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The more I hear of Ingo Metzmacher’s work, the more I admire it. He’s not on the podium for self-display; he’s there to focus on the music, to clarify and reveal it, and he does so with sterling musicianship. His commitment to contemporary music is to be applauded; also his integration of music from different centuries and backgrounds (his current schedule embraces Luigi Nono and Leonard Bernstein). Built around a Beethovenian backbone, Metzmacher’s combining of an important new work with a staple of the Romantic repertoire is typical of his enterprising programming.

The LPO itself was similarly enterprising by inviting Thomas Ades to give a (free) pre-concert recital of his three piano pieces, heard here as an uninterrupted 30-minute sequence. Ades’s builds on tradition in a wholly individual way. I capitulated to his talent with Asyla, which opened the door for a return to earlier pieces, already recognised as precocious, to seek their substance. From 1997, Asyla impressed not only with its imaginative and precise colourings but its symphonic scope and memorable invention. Its first conductor, Simon Rattle, has already recorded it (for EMI, one of a number of Ades CDs now available) and this performance was its third in London following the composer’s London premiere (Proms) and Dohnanyi’s with the Philharmonia (earlier this RFH season).

Asyla compels attention with its disorientating, precisely notated, soundworld – an upright piano (one of two) tuned a quarter-tone flat and unpitched percussion debilitate the harmony. The inventive thematic material, the core of this 25-minute piece, is developed, used cyclically, and ranges from eerie tintinnabulation to disco repetition and, in the last section, the dank, claustrophobic atmosphere found in Bluebeard’s Castle (a Bartokian motif in attendance); a Sibelian sense of growth informs Ades’s structure. In this well-prepared and committed performance, Asyla once again shined as a hypnotic work of genuine stature.

Of Ades’s piano works, Darknesse Visible goes in search of a John Dowland lute song and, like Britten’s guitar Nocturnal, finds it at the close; a persistent trill suggests an echo from the past. Still Sorrowing retains a Dowland reference, the piano ’prepared’ with the use of Blu-Tac to alter the sound of the piano’s middle register – another example of Ades’s acute ear for sound. Traced Overhead’s piquant harmonies serve a more cohesive and virtuoso work – especially so in the central scherzo – in which the composer displayed his pianistic talents.

As did Andreas Haefliger albeit his playing was neat and dextrous but lacked dynamic shading and variegation. Such monochrome pianism didn’t sustain attention, the ear drawn to Metzmacher’s crisp and buoyant conducting – keen accents, lilting inflections, carefully crafted detail and thoughtfully weighted sonority. One rarely sensed Haefliger wanted to dialogue with the orchestra – he had his part, the players theirs. Haefliger did find more expression and eloquence in the broadly paced slow movement; the finale was virile if short on humour.

Metzmacher removed accreted heaviness, lingering and voluptuousness that Heldenleben has acquired over the decades and led a selfless, tightly-organised account in the manner of Strauss himself. There was no lack of power in the vigorous and confident opening or in the fierce, propulsive war-scene that raged later – all part of Metzmacher’s consideration, which prioritised structure and reminded that Strauss was a young man (34) when he wrote it. When Metzmacher did yield, just prior to off-stage trumpets heralding battle-stations, or as the hero’s retirement loomed, he drew a quiet beauty of sound from the LPO’s strings that caught the air, drew breath and suggested a still-centre of reflection. The love-interest was radiantly expressive, Gordan Nikolitch (guest-leading from the LSO) seductive and feisty in his portrayal of Frau Strauss.

If his one miscalculation was the throwaway return of the hero’s theme as conflagration subsided – victory! – Metzmacher’s revealing of oft-overlooked detail was ample compensation. Very much in keeping with his overall approach, Metzmacher opted for Strauss’s original fade-away ending, which proved very convincing here. Hopefully, Metzmacher will continue to be a regular visitor to London.

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