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Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey - LPO, Thomas Adès (conductor) at the Royal Festival Hall
13 Apr 2018

Thomas Adès conducts Stravinsky's Perséphone at the Royal Festival Hall

This seemed a timely moment for a performance of Stravinsky’s choral ballet, Perséphone. April, Eliot’s ‘cruellest month’, has brought rather too many of Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers [to] pierce the ‘drought of March to the root’, but as the weather finally begins to warms and nature stirs, what better than the classical myth of the eponymous goddess’s rape by Pluto and subsequent rescue from Hades, begetting the eternal rotation of the seasons, to reassure us that winter is indeed over and the spirit of spring is engendering the earth.

Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey - LPO, Thomas Adès (conductor) at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Dame Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Adès, Toby Spence, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, Trinity Boys Choir

Photograph courtesy of Trinity Boys Choir

 

Perséphone was commissioned in early 1933 by the dancer Ida Rubinstein and performed by her ballet company the following year (the score - for solo tenor (Eumolpus, the Priest), speaker-dancer (Persephone, the Goddess), mixed chorus and children’s chorus - was revised in 1949). An imperious and idiosyncratic patron - she also commissioned the painter Léon Bakst to arrange the flowers in her Parisian garden in boxes, so that the design could be changed every few weeks, and was reported to keep a black tiger cup and drink champagne out of Madonna lilies - she requested from Stravinsky a sung ballet based upon André Gide’s poem Perséphone, in which she would take the speaker-dancer role of the harvest-bringing goddess of fertility.

Gide’s text, based on Homer’s ‘Hymn to Demeter’ from the Iliad, gives the classical myth a Christian gloss - also fitting for this Easter month perhaps, but less successful in terms of ‘narrative’. In Gide’s libretto, Perséphone’s sacrifice is voluntary - she willingly and knowingly picks the fatal narcissus bloom - and the compassion she demonstrates, transfiguring. When rescued courtesy of the sudden appearance of Demophoön/Triptolemus she rejoices at being restored to her mother, Demeter, but accepts that her bond with Pluto cannot be broken. Gide closes his French text with the words of Jesus, as reported by Saint John, ‘Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’ (Il faut, pour qu’un printemps renaisse/ Que le grain consente a mourir/ Sour terre, afin qu’il repraraisse/ En moisson d’or pour l’avenir), thereby reconciling classicism and Christianity. One suspects Stravinsky’s interest in lay in more earthy rituals of sacrifice and renewal such as he had explored in The Rite of Spring.

Conductor Thomas Adès conjured the transparency and textural variety of the score with delicacy and clear direction in equal measure - I was reminded of Lily Briscoe’s vision, in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, of ‘the colour burning on a framework of steel; the light of a butterfly's wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral’. The London Philharmonic Orchestra produced tender sonorities and a beguiling sweetness; superb playing by the strings, piano and harp was enhanced by beautiful woodwind solos, nowhere more so than the flutes’ decoration of Perséphone’s final speech. Adès never allowed the large stretches of ostinato to inhibit the forward momentum and there was an underlying rhythmic impetus, and occasionally a dance-like sweep.

The ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir injected sensuality and mystery into the murmurs of the opening chorus, ‘Reste avec nous, princesse Perséphone’, as the nymphs entreat the goddess to stay, as her mother instructed, in their care, amid the flowers and birds, the tender embrace of the stream, the caress of the air. The lullaby, ‘Sur ce lit elle repose’, was beautifully shaped. Male and female voices came together sonorously in ‘Nous apportions nos offrandes’ (We bring offerings), the chorus in Part III (Perséphone Reborn) which swells with the spirit of Russian Easter music. The members of Trinity Boys Choir sat perfectly still for forty-five minutes before, singing from memory, they added a pure religiosity to the closing episodes.

In Eumolpus’ first rhetorical address to the goddess of a million names, ‘puissante Demeter’, Toby Spence’s tenor was rather overwhelmed by the vibrant orchestral forces and he seemed a little uncomfortable vocally. But, subsequently, particularly in the more declamatory, recitative-like passages Spence grew in sureness, stature and confidence; and the high-lying line certainly presented no difficulty - there was never a sense of strain at the top, and by the close there was considerable dignity.

Gide’s French verses are richly romantic: Stravinsky described such phraseology as ‘La brise a caressé les fleurs’ (The breeze has caressed the flowers), ‘Ivresse matinale’ (Morning intoxication) and ‘Rayon naissante, petale’ (Newborn sunbeam, petal), as ‘vers caramel’. Dame Kristin Scott Thomas conveyed both the perfume and the poise of the poetry. Not only was her French faultless, but her timing was impeccable too - no mean feat given that Stravinsky did not indicate in the score how the text should be synchronised with the music.

Such exquisite calm and control was all the more noteworthy and telling, considering the exuberance of the works performed in the first half of the concert. Gerald Barry’s Organ Concerto (receiving its first London performance) is a miscellany of memory, incorporating assorted aural remembrances from Barry’s childhood: a harmonium (a solo for which is more extensive and prominent than the writing for organ), Angelus bells, 21 metronomes, and more. It’s also a war-zone, reflecting Barry’s own inharmonious relationship with the Sacristan at a Catholic church outside Cologne where the composer once worked, and the early twentieth-century musical battle between tonality and atonality. Barry tells us the impetus to embrace the latter contest was prompted by a photograph of a Washington Square cat, Blue Gadoo, peering at a book called Sex and The Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde’: ‘By his expression I knew he was mourning the loss of atonality. So I put his fight for atonality against tonality into the concerto.’

If this sounds rather too consciously self-aware, then the resulting work is certainly combative. The stuttering trumpet initiates the antagonism that the organ (Thomas Trotter) then escalates until the initial splutters have become a cacophonous rampage - Stravinsky’s superimpositions, in The Rite, say, result in what might termed ‘organised chaos’, but I’m not sure that’s what Barry has is mind. After the storm, silence: a timpani tone row, rising step by step, initiates some quietude into which intrude tolling bells and ticking metronomes. ‘Resolution’ of a sort is attained through a final hymn in which the trumpets’ lovely circular melody sits asymmetrically atop pounding, harmonious tutti crotchets in 4/4 time. If with such concordance one felt one’s nerves finally relax, the knowledge that Barry titles this hymn, Humiliated and Insulted, might have tempered the relief offered by the final consonance.

Adès seemed to relish Barry’s battles, conducting with intellectual command and technical precision. He always has seemed able to assimilate a huge range of ideas and debates with utter command, and no lack of emotion or sensitivity, and this was exemplified in the work which opened the concert, his own - recently extended - orchestral suite from his 1995 ballet, Powder Her Face. Despite the huge forces employed and the hyperbolic emotions conjured, Adès ensured that we could appreciate the Stravinskian lucidity and quasi-classicism of the score, which, with pictorial episodes added to the original three dances, now encompasses more of a narrative. The LPO slinked through the slides, whoops, snide nasality and louche levity, as Adès, his gestures crisp and clear, the baton essaying pungent swipes at times, proved an exemplary guide through the nightmarishly complex rhythmic and temporal side-steps and sashays.

Despite all the virtuosity and variety on display, though, it was the purity - both Gallic and classical - essential lyricism and simplicity of Perséphone which seemed most profound.

Claire Seymour

Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey
Thomas Adès: Powder Her Face Suite (UK premiere)
Gerald Barry: Organ Concerto
Stravinsky: Perséphone

Thomas Adès (conductor), Thomas Trotter (organ), Tonby Spence (narrator), Dame Kristin Scott Thomas (Perséphone), London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Trinity Boys Choir.

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 11th April 2018.

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