Sunday, October 8, 2023

Barbican Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

With Antonio Pappano captaining the journey, recorded for future broadcast on Mezzo (catch it when it comes), this was one of those concerts when virtuosity and art, imagination and electricity, met in visceral symbiosis. Introducing the current season he speaks of pushing things musical to extremes, “you feel like you’re going to go over a cliff any second … that’s the kind of risk I find so exciting.” He first worked with the LSO at Abbey Road in August 1996 – Puccini’s La Rondine with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. “I’ll never forget the first downbeat, when the orchestra just exploded with activity and panache and derring-do. It felt like I’d got into a Ferrari and pushed the gas pedal down.”

Leapfrog twenty-seven years, drive a two-million-dollar-plus Daytona SP3, and the first explosion of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances cracked with the force and flame of an asteroid strike, brilliance, tightness and perfect unanimity in every note, chord and dynamic. Pappano’s conception was stunning, as much for physical impact as elevated lyricism. Shrill woodwind, snarling weighty brass, lush strings. An occasional ‘Bernstein’ stamp of the foot reinforcing quivering body language. Along the way one fancied high noon Latin/American passions more than ice-thaw Russian remembrance (the trilogy was completed for Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941). Individual players shone – Simon Haram’s saxophone, Matthew Glendening’s clarinet Nigel Thomas’s near ‘period’-hard timpani attack, Elizabeth Burley’s piano. Corporate sections smouldered, glowed and blazed. Hair breadth timing. Very special. Cheering to the rafters.

Opening the evening, Pappano’s view of La valse as a work taking “decadence, intoxication and danger” to the limit was reflected in a gripping reading, high geared from the outset. This was a keenly urgent, anchors-away performance. On the one hand clarifyingly analytical, on the other voluptuously, biographically theatrical, emotionally unnerving by the end. Here was music shattered by war and 1914-18. A night of “young beautiful women, lights, music” remembered by a friend, the great Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes. “I thought of death, of the ephemeral nature of everything. I imagined balls from past generations who are now nothing but dust.” Ravel’s triste and tragedies. Comrades lost. The cameos and distillations of generations ago. Watchful, yielding, tensioned, Pappano sculpted decisively accented rhythms and burning climactic decibels, searing in foreground images and subliminal nuances, his spectacular orchestra (antiphonal violins, double basses right of stage, delirious glissandos, pinpoint percussion) of singular mind.

Enter Patricia Kopatchinskaja voyaging the twenty-seven minutes of Fazil Say’s First Violin Concerto (1001 Nights in the Harem), commissioned by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra – a four-movement narrative “loosely connected” with Rimsky’s violin-voiced Scheherazade of Islam’s Golden Age. “The first movement”, Say tells us “is set inside the harem; a variety of women are introduced, each with her own different personality. The second movement is a frenzy of dance – in effect a party night with an abundance of different types of dance music. The third movement depicts the next morning and consists primarily of variations on a well-known Turkish song. The fourth movement begins dramatically, but develops during the course of the movement more and more into a reminiscence of all the previous events and the work culminates dreamily in a happy mood with [birdsong and] sensuous oriental sounds.” Precision crafted and scrolled, it’s an atmospheric, scintillating canvas, “Turkish modal fragments [twisting and sparking] on a bed of complex harmony” (Timmy Fisher’s programme note), that’s been taken up by a number of violinists, most recently Iskandar Widjaja, Juraj Cizmarovic and Friedemann Eichhorn. In a corner of its verses and chapters conceivably stands a tribal Siirt mangal, a glinting brazier of complex flammables, Scheherazade, tale-spinning ancient/contemporary, reclining through aromatic wisps of curling charcoal smoke. The third movement’s Turkish/Balkan Kâtibim derivation is magically tranced, memorable for its Kara Toprak/Black Earth allusions and for the way at the end the violin costumes the tune in faint, disembodied ‘shepherd’s pipe’ harmonics.

Closely associated with Say, Kopatchinskaja premiered and recorded the work in 2008. It was excellent to have her back in London recreating it, trademark bare feet, ripped jeans, smiles and all. Penetrating, dancing, choreographing her way through the notes, elegant swirls of her bow tracing silent patterns, leaning in close, confronting the musicians primás-style, her freedom, fluidity and control, clasping the music and its stratospheric demands from within, cadenzas ideally balanced, was matchless. Likewise tonal quality – here vocal, there guttural, Eastern inflexion, Romantic and wraith-like throat song (think Eivør Pálsdóttir ‘s Tròdlabùndin) metamorphosed into a fantastical ‘world’ mix. Joining her, Neil Percy, playing Turkish folk percussion front of stage, to the manner born, mutated events and chemistry into a wondrously floating ‘planet without star’ concertante. Pappano, dedicated stylist, and the LSO, lithe, muscular and disciplined, led by Andrej Power, ensured a special occasion. Standing ovation.