London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 26 November, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries is a long, relentless movement. It’s an exhilarating ride. The setting is minimalist. A constant rhythmic figure is to the fore. It’s energetic, agitated and lithe. In pop and rock idiom the strings provide an equivalent to a ground bass – a live, active, continuing presence. The shining copper bellies of the timpani are thumped emphatically every now and then, to demonstrate their powerfully inconsequential presence. We hear scraps from brass, winds or the piano-synthesiser, hidden from view. They possibly merit extending into melodies – yet they remain fragments. There is no time. The rhythmic figure pushes on – an express train, from which we glimpse people waiting on the platform, with untold stories to tell.
About three-quarters through, the style changes. The rhythmic motif ceases and, in longer phrases, woodwinds and synthesiser come to the fore. It is as though the train has reached its destination and Adams now depicts hustle and bustle on the platform. He is quite a colourist. Adams’s own description calls this “travelling music”, journeying over a “cityspace”. He identifies Fearful Symmetries as an addendum deriving from the inspirational energy that gave rise to “Nixon in China”. Brilliantly, it combines the “weight and bravura of a big band with the glittering, synthetic sheen of techno pop (samples and synthesizer) and the facility and finesse of a symphony orchestra” to make something purely and splendidly instrumental. The work’s title is not explained. It may have more to do with A. Zee’s “Fearful Symmetries: the Search for Beauty in Modern Physics” than to William Blake’s “The Tyger”.
The vitality of Adams’s writing quivered through Marin Alsop’s dancing body-movements. The LSO vibrated with the musical energy and colour she evoked.
The Mahler was something of a mixed bag. The performance suggested meticulous rehearsal – but of some parts only. The opening, for example, was magisterial. The trumpet calls were evocative and precise. Each note – including the isolated ones – held its place as a vital, integral part of some momentous pronouncement. The funeral march erupted in a deafening cataclysm, reminding us that we expect the world to end. An eloquent, long-phrased flow followed. A mellifluous voice was varying in pitch and timbre with lamenting softness and great subtlety – captivatingly – in the course of just the one sentence. This voice expressed restive sensibility and dancing intelligence – quietly and eloquently. The famous Adagietto was spellbinding. The mood was rapt – in awe of the wonder Mahler beheld Alma Schindler and perhaps, too, in awe of the feelings she was evoking in him. The music pressed ahead, but sounded slow enough – as it should be. The two climaxes were enormous spasms of stirring emotional intensity.
The rest of this long symphony contained playing of lesser calibre – vigorous and on-sweeping, but with less subtlety and clarity and rather more bombast. The frenzied climaxes sounded increasingly automatic. Mahler’s inspiration was suggested as flagging; however, a sharper dialectic – unperceived – underlies the sometimes-tortuous complexities of Mahler’s contrapuntal texture. Occasional moments of chamber-like simplicity glowed in the darkness – Alsop was very good on these. Overall, however, the symphony sprawled.