Thursday, February 16, 2023

Barbican Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

A concert of opposing halves, many personalities and innumerable mood-swings. François-Xavier Roth, a man as driven by the old masters as the modern age, opened proceedings with the UK premiere of Elgar Howarth’s 1991 Macabre Collage in its 2021 reworking and expansion (Howarth directed the first performance of Le grand macabre in Stockholm in 1978). “A kind of black farce”, Ligeti maintained, “a ridiculous piece, humorous but utterly tragic at the same time […]. At the centre of [Michel de Ghelderode’s original 1934 play] stands […] the impossibility to change fate and the actions and efforts undertaken in vain to escape death. One of the strategies used to avoid this destiny is the attempt to ridicule death.” “Fear of death and the delusional belief that it won’t happen to you – that is the great theme of the piece. Actually nothing unusual, because we all try to block out the fact that we have to die.” “Fear not to die, good people all”, sings the cast. “No-one knows when his hour will fall. Farewell in cheerfulness, farewell!”. At around twenty minutes, the piece is a challenging curtain raiser, making virtuosic demands on the ensemble and calling for particularly large and varied percussion forces. Organised, tightly in control, Roth relished its every gesture, the LSO – with some musicians placed spatially at the compass points of the hall – responding fearlessly, whatever the attack, transient archaic tread, quasi contrapuntal allusions or interjected fragments of remote, sepulchrally whispered Mahlerian timbre. If here and there I missed the visual impact of a dramatised production, the communicative, physically expressive presence of singer-actors, the sheer fertility/facility of imagination, invention and coordination, Howarth’s organic seamlessness, the rampant audaciousness of gesture, the power of execution, could only be wondered at.

“I need dialogue … I don’t strive for perfection, but for LIFE, to see what happens.” With Patricia Kopatchinskaja you never know what to expect. Regardless, it’s going to be worth whatever ticket is going. On this occasion, with Ligeti’s Violin Concerto (the definitive five-movement version from 1992/93), she rose to incandescent heights. Here was emotional depth, lyric contemplation, brilliance, animalistic tension, sonorously produced tone, together with, in the second movement, some of the most lovingly shaped pizzicato playing I’ve heard in quite a while, and, in the first, a fabulously geared duet with marimba. The loose cannon in her surfaced in the big cadenza of the final movement – her own, partly written out, partly improvised. At its climax, barefoot, she scurried about the platform, teasing, vocalising, stamping, getting the orchestra, then Roth, to shout and snarl, all but assaulting the audience – the 6/4-5/3 convention of Beethoven’s day turned upside down yet still a resolution replete with terse ritornello finish. Extraordinary. Kopatchinskaja and her violin live for each other. She strides on, instrument held proudly high like the figurehead of some Cape Horn tea clipper. Now erect, back arched, now stooping, intimately close, she gets it to talk, vibrate, caress, plead, argue, confess. And dance. Her encore – Ligeti’s Baladă și joc duo (from the 1950 post-Enescu days of the Concert românesc) – warped us to another cosmos. Feline sprung, “come from the dirt, end in the dirt”, before our eyes the wild Moldovan girl of camp fires and earthy step, for escort Carmine Lauri, LSO leader for the night, body language steeped in Maltese knightdom and courtesy. Kisses in abundance, wreathed in smiles, she adored the moment. (Catch if you can a 2015 Finnish clip of her and Sakari Oramo hoofing this same piece, offering the blood-racing spectacle of equal-voiced ‘folk fiddlers’ – Eastern Europe, Northern Baltic – using the platform as a pulverisingly percussive resonator: It’s phenomenal.)

Roth’s period-conscious Beethoven with Les Siècles always stimulates, an urgently coiled journey with players pushed, listener expectations elevated, and musicological corners pondered (sample a tremendous 2020 Versailles Seventh, contra-bassoon stiffening the bass line: The more surprising then that this LSO Fifth, energised and ruggedly robust though it was, somehow never quite took off. Yes, we got all the repeats, its leit-rhythms were crisply profiled, the harmonic structure was articulate and dominant (here and there – in the Andante for example, deciding the variation architecture – blocks of progression taking precedence over melody). Four horns, three trumpets strengthening the tuttis. Hard-stick kettledrums right of stage. Six basses to the left. Yet more was wanted. Perhaps the original A-B-A-B-A draft of the Scherzo. Orchestrally tidier, more dependable, Scherzo-Finale transitions. I wondered why (contrasting Les Siècles) only the second of the (identically scored) fortissimo marcia statements possessed real corporate strength, neither the first nor third being that ideally characterised dynamically or modally (the minor/major, darkness/light swing). The string emphatic/bass-heavy closing unison C, more Brahmsian than Freischütz weighted, passingly touched an off-piste nerve. How Roth approaches the ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Choral’ later this season will be interesting.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra – Nicholas Collon conducts Outi Tarkiainen’s Midnight Sun Variations & Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony, with Patricia Kopatchinskaja playing György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. Live YLA Areena webcast.

RELEASED TODAY, January 27: Les Siècles & François-Xavier Roth record Les Nuits de Paris – Dance Music from Folies Bergère to Opéra – for Bru Zane.