Related Rocks – Opening Concert

Boris Godunov (excerpts)
Cantigas [UK premiere]
The Rite of Spring

Paata Burchuladze (bass)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 November, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Related Rocks, the South Bank’s festival focusing on the music of Magnus Lindberg, got off to a flying start with this concert, featuring one of his most recent orchestral works. Written for the Cleveland Orchestra, and premiered by it and Christoph von Dohnányi in 1999, Cantigas takes as its starting point the Medieval Spanish tradition of Marian songs.

The interval of a perfect fifth, fundamental to the cantigas as it is to classical tonality as a whole, permeates the opening oboe melody, though anyone expecting a subdued work from this initial statement was in for a shock. Even by Lindberg’s standards this was a visceral experience – though, unlike the earlier Féria, where intensity is spread relatively evenly, Cantigas builds remorselessly through the five sections that make up its 18-minute span. Yet the impact unleashed is balanced by clarity, with passing emphasis on individual instruments and sections absorbed into the sheer density and vibrancy of the orchestral fabric.

As before with Lindberg, the closing bars bring a feeling of apotheosis without facile resolution – an overriding calm which suffuses the texture with a Tapiola-like inevitability. The shock of finding his score had already arrived ’stage right’ – he entered ’stage left’ apologising that “nobody can find my score” – quite likely gave an added impetus to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s account. At any rate, Lindberg appeared delighted with both performance and audience response – and no doubt the work too.

The impact of Cantigas was heightened by the curious but imaginative opening item. Selecting a viable sequence of excerpts from Boris Godunov is not easy, but concentrating on the Tsar’s monologues at least conveys something of the dramatic trajectory and musical consistency of this seminal opera. Beginning with orchestral music from the ’Prologue’, Salonen proceeded to Boris’s acceptance speech from Act One’s ’Coronation Scene’; then, from Act Two, the fearful intimations of the ’Monologue’, the hallucinatory trauma of the ’Clock Scene’, and Act Four’s heart-rending deathbed soliloquy.

Paata Burchuladze, making a relatively rare appearance in London, invested a good deal of force and pathos into his reading, and it was not his fault that the rather piecemeal undertaking precluded a greater gravitas from emerging. Salonen ensured the follow-through worked as well as it could, with the voices of the Russian people in the final excerpt captured on pre-recorded sample. An interesting experiment that did not quite work – like the sequence as a whole.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – an influence on Lindberg as on virtually every composer of note – however negatively – since its notorious premiere 88 years ago was from Salonen an incisive, athletic conception that is already well known to London audiences; his control – from incidental detail to the overall two-part structure – was rarely in doubt. Yet there is a dimension which is not conveyed by virtuosity alone, a sense of danger and vulnerability in the relationship between man and nature which that first-night audience surely comprehended, but which has become harder now that the music had insinuated itself into the collective conscience.

  • The Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen perform Sibelius’s Kullervo and Lindberg’s Kraft at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday, 2 December, at 7.30
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