The Foundry … Pärt 4 … Poem of Ecstasy

The Foundry
Symphony No.4 (Los Angeles) [UK premiere]
Concerto in D for Piano (Left-hand)
The Poem of Ecstasy

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 20 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThe relatively conservative Austro-German focus of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s main Southbank Centre season has not always played to the strengths of its talented chief, the pale efficiency of whose Mahler has never much appealed to the present writer. Here though was a concert to demonstrate Esa-Pekka Salonen’s articulate way with brightly coloured and/or highly stylised, non- (or rather anti-) Teutonic fare. An unorthodox concept bringing together four very different composers operating within more or less hermetically-sealed stylistic boundaries, three of them eschewing conventional notions of harmonic progress, two of them writing ‘symphonies’ of a kind: it held together surprisingly well.

Mosolov’s provocation-turned-enjoyable-romp is difficult to programme – Riccardo Chailly has favoured it as an encore – and not just because of its short duration. The 1920s engendered many forms of musical modernism and Mosolov’s Zavod (more usually rendered as ‘The Iron Foundry’) can be seen as one of a spate of rhythmically dynamic utterances derived from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Constructs like Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Prokofiev’s Second Symphony have more music in them, however. Nor are they encumbered with the agitprop connotations of the Mosolov. Not exactly Red in tooth and claw – the organ console was bathed in shocking pink by the lighting people – the present performance gave us the inner workings of a neutered period piece. The eight horns stood to deliver their contribution but once it was over there seemed nowhere for the process to go. The opening music returns after a lamer central section. Fun though.

Later works by the same composer revert to party-line blandness and it was against a similar background of Soviet-Russian cultural and political domination that the Estonian Arvo Pärt formulated what was then (in the 1970s) a wholly individual (hence individualistic hence, inevitably, oppositional) approach to composition. His mature output is likely to remain controversial but there can be little doubt that the clutch of scores he composed at the outset of his tintinnabular period will survive with their iconic status intact. More doubtful is the idiom’s capacity to generate the larger musical structures traditionally associated with Western art music.

It is a difficulty Pärt has been tackling head-on in recent works. Even so the arrival of a Fourth Symphony comes as a surprise: its predecessor is a transitional opus dating from 1971. Paul Hillier wrote of this in glowing terms. “Symphony No.3 is in three movements, joined attacca, so that the whole work has the seamless flow and organic sense of development that we associate, for example, with the symphonies of Sibelius” – this is a non-sequitur at best, which is not to say that the piece’s cinematic stop-start medievalism cannot be very moving in a sympathetic performance.

Pärt’s Fourth Symphony (Los Angeles) is not that different if unsurprisingly cooler and thinner in content. Gloomier too. Timpani obtrude in places although there’s only one patch of the forced Kancheli-like oppositional writing which disfigures Pärt’s large-scale “Lamentate”, ostensibly inspired by Anish Kapoor’s ‘Marsyas’ installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. The dedication of the Fourth may or may not be a key to its own downbeat atmosphere: it is inscribed to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the Russian oligarchs who used his early Communist connections to gain a foothold in the developing free market. Having amassed a vast petrochemicals empire, he fell out dramatically with Putin and now languishes in detention where he has re-made himself as a public intellectual and human-rights campaigner. (The transformations of Jonathan Aitken are small beer in comparison.) Like most former Soviet bloc composers, Pärt prefers the émigré life but explains that he intended to reach out in this symphony to “all those imprisoned without rights in Russia.” Along the way there are some surprising reminiscences of Mahler as well as the more usual suspects.

The Symphony opens on shimmery string chords soon juxtaposed with high chimes – just the kind of invention the composer’s admirers find transcendental while for others the static, meditative atmosphere quickly palls. This time the writing is not in the main consolatory but, rather, halting and provisional, the harmonies unresolved. The many cadential gestures are played out in slow-motion, the lack of direction plainly of the essence. The composer, who was present, could not have hoped for a cleaner rendition of the notes themselves. The central movement has a recurring block-like pizzicato idea, rather Russian-sounding, which at least provides a point of reference. The finale ends with the most active music Pärt has essayed for many years but its march-like progress from the depths of the orchestra to the high-pitched sonorities with which the work begins is a long time coming and seems undercooked, scarcely the “stunning” effect we were promised in the programme note. Schnittke managed these things better.

The work is a long haul at not far off 40 minutes, in part because the scoring is for strings, harp and percussion alone. For the most part, the audience listened with remarkable concentration notwithstanding the usual bronchial intrusions. The house looked no more than 70 per cent full so perhaps the composer’s cult is on the wane. Let’s be fair: the Fourth begins with top-notch, instantly identifiable music of rapt, wan beauty, only it’s hard to see what the next half-hour adds to it. Those wishing to relive the experience will be able to refer to a beautifully produced ECM disc hot off the press.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. ©J Henry-Fair There remained Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s characteristically full-blooded, even un-Gallic account of the Ravel, a dark conception to distance the concerto from its G major companion. Salonen now used a baton and for the closing item, a sophisticated and flamboyant Poem of Ecstasy. His Los Angeles sojourn has made him a more extrovert kind of interpreter and the organ-dominated climax (extravagantly mimed from the podium) brought the house down. No surprise there: this is a Proms piece par excellence and the Philharmonia gave of its best bathed in a tangerine glow.

A memorable night, but the BBC will have to do something about the whirring noises emitted by one of its new-fangled robot cameras.

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