LSO/Nagano – By George! (2 Feb)

Le Chant de Rossignol
Antara †
Das Lied von der Erde §

Paul Edmund Davies, Gareth Davies (flutes) †
John Alley, Catherine Edwards (keyboards) †

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) §
Robert Gambill, tenor §

London Symphony Orchestra
Kent Nagano

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 2 February, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Continuing the LSO’s season-long exploration of all-things George Benjamin, this concert – marking a welcome, if rare, return to London of Kent Nagano (who is now tied up with his principal conductorships of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Plácido Domingo’s Los Angeles Opera) – brought together two 20th-century classics as couplings for the haunting panpipe-inspired Antara, which was one of the fruits of Benjamin’s time at Boulez’s IRCAM in the mid-80s.Benjamin himself added an interesting note in the concert programme about his continuing love for the Mahler, which again enhanced the overall intelligence of the pairing of repertoire.

A work which pairs two flutes with sampled panpipe sounds played on two keyboards, Antara was eloquently contrasted with two works that also feature the flute prominently. (The fact that the LSO’s principal conductor Sir Colin Davis is currently conducting Die Zauberflöte at the Garden is of almost X-Files proportions of spookiness.)And, even though Stravinsky’s orchestral work, based on his opera Le Rossignol, was inspired by a Hans-Christian Andersen fairy-tale, there is a sense of Eastern exoticism which also suffuses Mahler’s late song-cycle, The Song of the Earth, set to German translations of original Chinese poems. Benjamin’s inspiration may be South American (we are most likely to think of panpipes being from the Andes, I suspect), but the nature of the otherworldliness is similar.

In point of fact, the solo sampled panpipes played by John Alley on his keyboard reminded me of those otherworldies, the Clangers, which I’m sure is not what Benjamin had in mind, but elicited broad smiles from this writer throughout the piece, especially as the dialogue, here in the hands of Catherine Edwards, takes a long time to start. Meanwhile the flautist Davieses – Paul Edmund and Gareth (no relation, as far as I’m aware) – wove their own mesmeric spell around the accompaniment of eight strings, with interruptions from two trombonists and two percussionists. It may be that the visual element detracts from this music – the idea of a recognisably blown sound emanating from a keyboard (needing an on-stage computer operator) plays havoc with the perception of ponchoed Peruvians hunched over their liana-bound pipes – and therefore the performance may well have worked even better on the radio relay the following night. However, nothing detracts from Benjamin’s distinct and convincing soundworld and musical imagination: this is one of his most immediately appealing works, and it was good to hear it live again.

If close on 100 players of the orchestra were sidelined for Antara, the rest of the programme made up for it. The Stravinsky rang out loud and clear, notwithstanding the often beautifully judged pianissimo sections with the flutes first to the fore with their evocations of not only the real nightingale but also the Emperor’s mechanical replacement.

I suspect that the majority of the reasonably full audience was there for the Mahler and then mostly for Anne Sofie von Otter. While it is always a pleasure to see the Swedish mezzo, she was less than totally commanding in the arduous trio of low-voice songs, looking less than her usual confident self, especially in her first song, “The Lonely One in Autumn”. With a final uncertainty in attack which ended “The Farewell” with an unfortunate hint of deliberation, rather than dying effortlessly away into inaudibility, von Otter was at her imperious best in her second song, the poignant “Beauty”, where the observer reminisces of the feelings of first love, while watching young girls and handsome boys.

Apart from the consummate playing of the LSO under Nagano’s baton revelling in Mahler’s brilliant orchestration, at times super-charged, but mostly rapt in the most intimate detail, it was tenor Robert Gambill who stole the show. As von Otter graced Glyndebourne last year, Gambill is schedule to sing the Festival’s first Tristan this summer, and on this showing – riding high over the most luscious of Mahler’s orchestrations, most notably in the first song, “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery” – he will definitely be worth hearing. Moreover, he seemed to be enjoying himself – which transmitted to his singing eloquently.

  • The next By George! is on Feb 13 LSO

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