LSO/Zinman – 5 June

Three Places in New England
Sudden Time
Daphnis et Chloë

London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
David Zinman

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 5 June, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

In this the penultimate concert in the series featuring the music of George Benjamin (“By George!”), his Sudden Time was framed by two works (chosen by him) that reflect Benjamin’s own catholic musical tastes.

It is hard to imagine two more different soundworlds than those ofCharles Ives and Maurice Ravel. Yet, astonishingly, Three Places in New England is roughly contemporaneous with Daphnis et Chloë. Curiously, in this performance of the Ives, the world of impressionism did not seem so very far away. Strings were hushed at the start of The ’St Gaudens’ in Boston Common, with woodwind comments and pianofiguration delicately etched. The brief climax was satisfyinglypowerful, and the subsequent diminution of intensity was carefullygraded, with eloquent and expressive solo strings. Putnam’s Camp was suitably raucous, with the rhythmic and metrical quirks which are peculiar to Ives handled with ease. The various quotations made their mark, and Zinman was able to clarify the complex textures admirably. The Housatonic at Stockbridge would have benefited from a much quieter start – the subsequent build-up would have been that much more effective as a result – but this was a remarkably confident performance overall.

If anything, though, Ives was made to sound rather too safe and sane. The LSO responded commendably to the score’s challenges and had evidently been rehearsed most thoroughly. One oddity was the mention in the front of the programme that Ives had been, on this occasion, “arranged by Zinman”. No explanation was given. Nor was there any discernible difference from the normal performing edition, apart from the omission, in the third piece, of the organ pedals.

Benjamin’s Sudden Time was completed in 1993 some ten years after the first sketches had been made. It has become one of his most frequently performed orchestral works in spite of the large instrumental apparatus required, which includes a quartet of alto flutes, a pair of miniature recorders, a muted piano and number of mini tabla (small Indian drums). Under Zinman’s direction, there was never any danger of the sound becoming cluttered. Strands were laudably lucid allowing Benjamin’s resourceful orchestration to be fully admired. Strangely enough, coming immediately after the Ives, the American pioneer’s soundworld seemed to find a curious resonance at the start of Benjamin’s piece whose course Zinman made clear. He encouraged focused and responsive playing from the LSO, not least from Paul Silverthorne, the principal viola, who managed to make his tortuous lines, accompanied dextrously by the tablas, sound less awkward than is sometimes the case.

Whether as a result of rehearsal time or through conscious interpretative decisions, the performance of Daphnis et Chloë was a decidedly less pleasant experience. One does not expect to be bludgeoned by Ravel, of all composers, but Zinman’s approach was forceful, if not downright aggressive in places, with heavily exaggerated accents, slow tempos verging on the ponderous (Ravel’s frequent ’vif’ and ’animé’ markings often ignored) and a generally leaden-footed response from the orchestra.

There was little, if any, suggestion of the delicacy and refinementinherent in Ravel’s score. Textures were coarse and bloated. The chorus was not unanimous either in attack or tuning – the unaccompanied passage preceding the pirates’ dance being distinctly uncomfortable. The dance itself was delivered with admirable attention to the second half of the composer’s indication – ’animé et très rude’ – whilst the climax of ’Dawn’ was overwhelming in quite the wrong way. With the side drum suggesting the approach of a military battalion in the final bacchanalia, any sense of joy and exhilaration was put firmly out of one’s mind.

It was incredible to find this crude, unsubtle performance sitting alongside those of the Ives and Benjamin, which had been prepared with evident and scrupulous care.

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