Scherzoid [New York Philharmonic & London Philharmonic co-commission: UK premiere]
Vier Letzte Lieder
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Elizabeth Connell (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 26 January, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
The third in a series of LPO concerts featuring music by Mark-Anthony Turnage, and the UK premiere of a work which recently received a not overly successful launch in New York. A pity, and a surprise – as Scherzoid is his most uninhibited orchestral piece yet; a scherzo with two trios proceeding along a propulsive, vividly-defined trajectory, playing here for about 14 minutes. Its Stravinskian dynamism – with woodwinds, brass and strings alternately confronting and dovetailing into each other, is tempered by a fractured lyricism which assumes the foreground only in the soprano saxophone solo of the second trio – to be followed by a cumulative reprise and a fusillade of glissandos and chords which bring the work to its stark conclusion.
All of which was seized on by the players in a display of no mean virtuosity, guided by Jonathan Nott with a confidence as unerring as it was undemonstrative. Turnage looked pleased the piece had been so vindicated: one can make its acquaintance further on a CD that will collate the works heard at these “Composer in Focus” concerts, due out on the London Philharmonic’s eponymous label later this year.
The remainder of the concert was devoted to Strauss – heard both in his autumnal final phase and would-be-subversive prime. “Four Last Songs” has suffered a degree of over-exposure for some years; one for which this performance in part compensated simply by going back to the order in which the Songs were heard at its 1950 premiere. Thus the gentle rapture of “Beim Schlafengehen” was followed by the fatalistic repose of “September” (surely the finest of the cycle), then the restless speculation of “Frühling” and, finally, the transfigured homecoming of “In Abendrot”. Although at times she phrased Strauss’s caressing vocal lines a little plainly, Elizabeth Connell also brought intimacy and understatement right for the music (this is Lieder, not concert arias), while Nott’s attentive accompaniment brought out the instrumental richness and subtlety of these supremely ‘felt’ songs.
‘Subtle’ is not perhaps the first epithet that comes to mind when describing Also sprach Zarathustra, yet the range of mood and expressive contrast in this veritable ‘concerto for orchestra’ is matched by a precision of scoring and balance that Strauss sometimes equalled but rarely surpassed. Nott gave an inspirational account of An Alpine Symphony at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival with his Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and was hardly less impressive here. The notorious ‘sunrise’ prelude was incisively dispatched (more Kempe than Karajan), and the emphasis thereafter lay on knitting together constituent sections so that the journey towards enlightenment of the putative Superman was paralleled by the ‘dawn to midnight’ path which the music, as if questioning the certainty of Nietzsche’s convictions, pursues with intent.
Best were the lucid fugal interplay of ‘Of Science’ and the curious passage after ‘The Convalescent’ in which birdsong takes on an almost Messiaenic significance. Leader Boris Garlitsky was alternately skittish and acerbic in his ‘Dance Song’ solo; its climactic orgy duly transcended by the calm of ‘The Song of the Night Wanderer’ – which Nott, by now baton-less, drew to a tellingly equivocal close.
Now into his fifth season as Principal Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, and much respected in mainland Europe, Nott was tonight making his symphony orchestra debut in the UK. The response that he drew from the LPO players, and the warmth of this audience’s applause, suggested that his home country has finally begun to realise what those elsewhere have been aware of for a decade and more.