The Stations of the Sun

The Stations of the Sun
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
An Alpine Symphony, Op.64

Olli Mustonen (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 November, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Last season, the London Philharmonic featured Kaija Saariaho as its “Composer in Focus” – a cachet enjoyed this season by Julian Anderson. At 35, he has already assembled an impressive catalogue of orchestral and chamber works, three of which are being included in LPO concerts.

Completed in 1998, and premiered at that year’s Proms, The Stations of the Sun takes its title from Ronald Hutton’s cyclical study of folk customs. The seasonal nature of these rituals is reflected in the four-part design of Anderson’s work. Whether or not he had previously conducted the score, Daniel Harding’s was a confident and coherent realisation. The syncopation of the initial scherzo passage were crisply delivered, while the free-flowing variants on the chant-like violin melody that follows had a warmth which eluded previous performances. Harding gave prominence to ’Alleluia Adorabo’ – though, unlike other composers, Anderson employs plainsong with some subtlety. The climactic evocation of Easter – bell sounds and all – was vividly wrought, and Harding had kept enough in reserve to ensure the sustained coda capped the piece impressively.

It was in these final sections that ’Midsummer Marriage’ Tippett came unmistakably to mind – suggesting that, though Anderson may profess a dislike of aspects of the English pastoral tradition, he has gone some way here towards a personal reinterpretation of it. Certainly the audience response, cordial if hardly effusive, gave a sense of being comfortable with the ethos of the work.

The real shock came in the performance of the Grieg concerto that followed. From his very first – premature and inaccurate – entry, Olli Mustonen seemed intent on avoiding any of the ’warhorse’ qualities associated with this work. The problem was his skittish, fragmented approach to rhythm and phrasing, coupled with his shallowness of tone across the keyboard. This undermined the lyrical and emotional qualities that define the work’s character. Only in the ’Adagio’ and the flute-led interlude of the ’Finale’ was there even a hint that Mustonen might divest himself of his interpretative hair-shirt and allow expression to come through unimpeded. Harding accompanied gamely, but there was no mistaking the frequent difficulties in ensemble co-ordination and balance.

It was salutary to read his biographical details: “For Mustonen to follow traditional interpretations unthinkingly is uncreative, but every bit as uncreative is the performance that seeks only to be different.” Hoist by his own aesthetic, methinks.

Some years ago, Harding made a notable if uneven impression in a performance of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Whatever else, this evening’s account of An Alpine Symphony was nothing if not lucid in its traversal of the work’s musical ’highs and lows’. The nocturnal gloom from which it emerges, and to which it returns 50 minutes later, were scrupulously realised as to their harmonic density; indeed, clarity and focus were very much in evidence throughout – with the arrival on the summit duly nerve-tingling, and the visceral impact of the storm the more impressive for the palpable sense of unease which preceded it.

Impressive as a sustained stretch of orchestral writing – and, occasional patches of sharp intonation aside, the LPO was eloquent in its response – the Alpine Symphony is rather less remarkable on the level of sheer musical invention. Indeed, the generalised expressiveness of much of the continuity between its ’highpoints’ often runs the risk of banality – a failing that Harding’s interpretative restraint did something to offset, but little to nullify. More worryingly, the penultimate ’Ausklang’ (End) section had little inherent sense of transfigured calm – emerging as a contented, even self-satisfied review of principal themes and motifs. Without a sense of Nietzschean striving and falling-short of its own aspirations, Strauss’s orchestral magnum opus cannot escape being a magnificent travelogue – the overbearing nature of its expression carrying the seeds of its own destruction.

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