Three Spirituals: Deep River; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; Going Home
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)
La Création du monde
Amériques [revised version]
London Adventist Chorale
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 20 February, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
In the first of two LPO concerts in The Rest is Noise series, Marin Alsop chose music by visitors to America – either by choice or, in the case of enslaved Africans, by force, with a marked split between a sense of loss and longing and a sense of adventure.
The three Spirituals sung by the London Adventist Chorale belonged firmly in loss and longing territory, with their religious conviction, memorable tunes and strong harmonies. Yet even in performances as sophisticated as these, their message still made deep impact. Under its director Ken Burton, the London Adventist Chorale showed extraordinary breath-control in some extravagantly slow passages, and the singers’ range of pianissimos dipped magically into the subliminal, the close of ‘Deep River’ leaving us in no doubt over the transition from one life to another. The easy-sounding rhythms in ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ are in fact terribly complex. The singers’ bending of pitch was just one instance of the virtuosity of this 25-strong a cappella group.
‘Going Home’ was arranged by Burton using the Largo of the ‘New World’ Symphony (1893). In a concert liberally spattered with very intrusive applause, Alsop made sure that the Dvořák seemed to emerge out of the Spirituals, a magical effect. Marin Alsop was in her element – charismatic, visionary and pragmatic – In a performance that yielded the work’s layers of distance with great clarity. She showed an instinctive grasp of music poised between expressions of nostalgia and the majesty of the American Sublime. In a work that can get stuck in its own prodigal tunefulness, Alsop caught the mercurial contrasts of mood, transmitted by some super-fluid playing from the LPO. The cor anglais solo in the Largo was like a trail of smoke in one of those vast landscape paintings by Frederick Edwin Church, and Alsop sustained a truly American generosity of scale. Her speeds had a mobility arising from a firm sense of pace, and she was at her considerable best in the grace and fantasy of the scherzo’s middle section. River deep, mountain high this ‘New World’ may have been, but it still longed for the old country.
Darius Milhaud, though, couldn’t get enough of one particular aspect of American music – jazz – using it to smart, urbane, if rather airless effect in his 1920s ballet score La Création du monde. This skilfully written music (for 18 players, including a dominant role for jazzily wailing saxophone) was played in lively fashion by a select few from the LPO and conducted by Alsop with sinuous looseness. No doubt the music works its chameleon tricks as a choreography soundtrack, but on its own it could be about anything.
It certainly wasn’t remotely elemental, which Edgard Varèse’s Amériques was, with knobs on. Marin Alsop made sure we understood his debt to The Rite of Spring in this work, and it was abundantly. Inconveniently short for its huge forces (even though it was played in the 1927 version for fewer personnel), including 14 percussion, 14 brass, double this and triple that, Amériques doesn’t get out much. Alsop referred to Varèse’s “skyscraper mysticism”, and there is a sort of freefall association of images that miraculously coalesce in the thundering closing pages. But it also has a very glamorous Art Deco quality of hard edges and vertiginous perspectives built on the sort of sonic observation that Stockhausen would later take to extremes. If nothing else, Alsop’s conducting and the LPO’s equally possessed playing were a shattering, megalomaniac demonstration that energy is indestructible, a rite for the modern rather than the ancient world, replete with hocketing fanfares, fierce lights and deep shadows, and a siren – that immediate invocation of urban unease – that in its frequent use began to sound like a dangerously feral tomcat.