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Reviews

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François-Xavier Roth conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Works by Ligeti, Bartók and Haydn

For the second of my armistice anniversary concerts, I moved across town from the Royal Festival Hall to the Barbican.

François-Xavier Roth conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Works by Ligeti, Bartók and Haydn, at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Julien Behr (tenor)

Photo credit: Rudy Waks

 

Vladimir Jurowski, the London Philharmonic Choir, and the LPO had set the bar high; François-Xavier Roth, the London Symphony Chorus, and the LSO proved more than worthy successors.

Again, there was no nationalist sentiment in (aural) sight; instead, we heard another fine, thought-provoking programme, with much to savour in performance too.

Ligeti’s Lontano, music from afar, offered an introductory object lesson in listening and thus a lesson in humanity too. What ill ever came of listening? Alas, as we remember the victims of war, we know only too well what ill comes of failing to listen. Infinite subtlety in work, performance, and yes, reception offered a far greater strength to the masculinist posturing of militarism. How much we heard, making us realise how much we often fail to hear. The LSO seemed to act as a chorus of its own, speaking words, messages that we might well fail to understand - and which yet were no less real for that. Final silence at the close truly inspired awe: a lesson for us all, albeit unlikely to be heard by those most in need of hearing it, of listening.

For Bartók’s Cantata profana, the LSC, tenor Julien Behr, and bass William Thomas joined Roth and the orchestra. In this particular context, the ballad of an uncomprehending father sending out his nine sons to hunt, those sons thereafter, having been transformed to stags, unable to return home, a grieving mother notwithstanding, took upon resonances perhaps not originally ‘intended’, yet no less real for that. The transformation taking place in words and musical form alike, a story retold, both similar to and yet different from its original telling, invited further resonances both old and new. It certainly did in performances both thoughtful and exciting, in the grip of yet also liberated by musical and verbal narrative. Sinister yet inviting orchestral polyphony at the opening itself seemed to refer to a Bluebeard’s Castle revisited and yet forgotten - perhaps even an earthy successor to Mahler’s Klagende Lied. This was before, let alone after, the entry of the chorus, a world still more primæval. Who narrated? The forest? Humanity? Particular participants? All and none of those, one could imagine at different times, as a magical, fantastical, yet unquestionably ‘real’ narrative unfolded. Multifarious voices, vocal and orchestral, spoke to us, but did we listen? Emboldened by Ligeti’s example, we made the attempt. We were amply rewarded too, whether in Behr’s near faultless handling of the cruel tessitura of his part, in the dark chocolate of Thomas’s performance that yet lacked nothing in precision, or in the outstanding command of the Hungarian text and its musical elucidation from the chorus. Masculinity showed its tender side here too; the ultimate tragedy nevertheless, quite rightly remained one of incomprehension - even to the extent of knowing whether it were tragedy at all.

Haydn’s Missa in angustiis, the so-called ‘Nelson Mass’, offered a different musical and indeed verbal narrative, one which could nonetheless be related to much of what we had previously heard. In its journey from darkness to light, from plea for mercy to divine peace, it offered delight as well as hope, as well, perhaps, as the fear that such might yet remain tantalisingly out of our twenty-first-century reach. The ‘Kyrie’ could hardly have proved more urgent, Camilla Tilling first amongst solo equals, her coloratura duly thrilling. The variegated tone of the LSO here and elsewhere offered a point of contact with Colin Davis’s more ‘traditional’ Haydn with the same orchestra. His way is not Roth’s; nor is there any reason it should be. There was no doubting the integrity of his more ‘period’-influenced approach, which seemed simply to correspond to his understanding of the music rather than to the application of ideology. It outstripped in every respect the meanderings earlier this year of András Schiff with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Haydn’s Harmoniemesse , which, whatever their external would-be ‘authenticity’, had shown little engagement with the actual material of the work. Roth’s command of form as dynamic structure was evident from this very first number, the return of the ‘Kyrie’ material as dramatically meaningful as the coming of any symphonic recapitulation.

The ‘Gloria’ had, to quote Haydn himself, my heart leaping for joy. Incisive, warm orchestral playing left plenty of room for darkness too. Behr and Christopher Purves offered finely judged responses to Tilling’s lead, mezzo Adèle Charvet’s subsequent ‘Gratius agimus tibi’ a further, properly symphonic development that lacked nothing in beauty of tone. And so it continued, Haydn’s setting our guide, the hallowed liturgical text remaining his - and our - master. If the opening of the ‘Credo’ were taken faster than one -at least I - might have expected, certainly faster than once would have been the case, it was certainly none the worse for that, likewise the ‘Crucifixus’ material. Once again, in the light of Ligeti’s invitation and, indeed, his invention, we seemed to hear so much more than might often be the case: for instance, a string quartet writ large in the ‘Et incarnatus’ section, those terrible sounds of war too, familiar and yet heard anew - just as they should be. There was no doubting Roth’s relish of Haydn’s invention in the vivid setting - depiction? - of the Resurrection, nor the superlative quality of choral singing, from which one might readily have taken dictation. Haydn’s good nature brought tears to the eyes; it could hardly have done so without such excellence of performance.

Awe in the ‘Sanctus’; emotional gravity in the ‘Benedictus’, further sounds of war and all, whose surrounding setting retained its roots in an older Austrian Baroque; an ‘Agnus Dei’ whose leisurely way brought due relief even as we continued to implore: all paved the way for a peace which, as ever with Haydn, passed both understanding and lazy assumptions as to what might be ‘fitting’. There were, then, lessons aplenty to be heard and, God willing, to be listened to too. Perhaps foremost among them was our continuing human need for a joy which, if hardly prelapsarian, might find good as well as ill in this, our created, fallen world.

Mark Berry

Ligeti: Lontano; Bartók: Cantata profana; Haydn: Missa in Angustiis, ‘Nelson Mass’, Hob. XXII/11. Camilla Tilling (soprano); Adèle Charvet (mezzo-soprano); Julien Behr (tenor); Christopher Purves, William Thomas (bass); London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)/London Symphony Orchestra/François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Sunday 11 November 2018.

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