Parada [London premiere]
Cello Concerto [London premiere]
Mussorgsky, orch. Shostakovich
Songs and Dances of Death
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op.63
Nathan Berg (baritone)
Anssi Karttunen (cello)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 7 February, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Contrasts and comparisons all round in this latest concert of the South Bank’s Magnus Lindberg project. His two pieces were both receiving their London premieres, with Basingstoke’s The Anvil having had the unlikely honour of the first performance of Lindberg’s latest orchestral work.
Compared with the unbridled effervescence of Feria (1997) and the visceral emotion of Cantigas (1999), Parada – which, together with these works, forms the central panel in a loose (Debussy) Images-like triptych – is decidedly ambivalent in its musical motion. Lindberg’s intention to write a slow-moving piece has left its mark on the underlying rhythmic discontinuity that constantly deflects surface activity from its expected course. The outcome is a pungent but not especially coherent-sounding thirteen minutes of activity, delivered with Lindberg’s customary panache, which may well flow better in the context of the trilogy – and in an acoustic which offers the substantial orchestra more room to breathe than the excellent ’chamber orchestra’ acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
No such problem affected the Cello Concerto (1999), only Lindberg’s second engagement with the genre, and in certain respects a concerto ’malgré lui’. For much of its twenty-four minutes, the soloist fulfils more of a concertante role – sending out fragments of, or allusions to melodic lines that the orchestra draws into an ever-denser sonic canvas. A mid-point cadenza, its virtuosity offset by disembodied harmonics, ushers in a more developed discourse with some of Lindberg’s most sustained lyrical writing, crystallising effortlessly into the soloist’s final gesture. An intriguing, even unsettling work, given its due by dedicatee Anssi Karttunen in a performance of unassuming mastery.
The other works rounded out the musical diversity of the concert accordingly. Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death are unequivocal in mood and content, the more so in Shostakovich’s sombre yet translucent orchestration, and ideally need a bass of the ’Russian school’ – or John Tomlinson – to project their implacable sentiments. Not that Nathan Berg was other than intelligent in his handling of the often monochrome syllabic settings; evoking the demise of the young woman in ’Serenade’ and the old drunk in ’Trepak’ with moving insight. Yet the death of the child in ’Lullaby’ was a little too passive, while the corpse-strewn battlefield of ’The Field-Marshal’ simply lacked expressive weight. Salonen’s handling of the often-intricate orchestral role was sensitive and alert throughout.
Having had some harsh words for Salonen’s Sibelius Five last year, it is good to report that his account of the Fourth impressed in its seriousness and focus. Taken at an almost ideal ’tempo molto moderato’, the opening movement opened up vast tonal and emotional reserves, while the scherzo combined elegance and unease to potent effect. The third movement never quite coalesced to the degree where its powerfully-wrought climax felt like the outcome of an unswerving musical process, while the finale fell into the traps of too swift a tempo for the main body of the movement and too drastic a slowing down for the climactic collapse and innate stoicism at its close. Yet Salonen’s commitment to realising this masterly symphonic vision was rarely in doubt and, aided by excellent playing from the Philharmonia wind and brass, brought the evening to a powerful and inspiring close.