Thursday, January 6, 2022

Barbican Hall, London

Broadcast on Tuesday, January 18 @ 7.30 p.m.

Unsuk Chin’s Second Violin Concerto (‘Shards of Silence’) was composed for Leonidas Kavakos. Alone, he spends the first couple of minutes of ‘his’ Concerto musing while gathering activity, intensity and other instruments. A procession of gestures and colours follows, delivered with bravura by all concerned at this premiere, not just Kavakos, but how one thing leads to another, what the overall trajectory is, is another matter. Plenty to engage the ear over twenty-five or so minutes (little silence, mind), but the “why?” of the music is less certain: it seems to play as a dream sequence, with nightmarish elements, or reflecting an unstated fantastical scenario, ultimately fitting into the ‘no way out’ category. However, not for the first time with this composer’s music, one felt a bit short-changed in terms of substance.

Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony and Bartók’s music for The Miraculous Mandarin are established masterpieces, and not too far apart in terms of composition date, both completed in 1924. Simon Rattle’s conducting of the one-movement Sibelius – in which all elements of ‘The Symphony’ are unified – was eloquent and detailed, if a little manicured, unlike the craggy countenance of Charles Munch in Boston,, a recent and, here, an unavoidable recent discovery, and read what it meant to Rob Cowan.

The Suite from Mandarin had much of the graphic content that this lurid tale and violent/eerie music needs, played unflinchingly. But … memory … comparisons … two concert performances of the Suite are an indelible part of my experience with this music, both at the Salzburg Festival (Radio 3 broadcasts), Rozhdestvensky & Moscow Radio SO, and Abbado & Vienna Philharmonic, very different, both tremendous. As good as this LSO account was, it didn’t quite have the mystery and savagery that can be so chilling and thrilling: in the final ‘chase’ (that ends the Suite) Abbado was wild, whereas Rozhdestvensky was deliberate but still delivered an unholy punch. For an unexpected encore, Rattle found fire and buoyancy in a Dvořák Slavonic Dance, No.15/Opus 72/7: uplifting.

Unsuk Chin Violin Concerto No.2, ‘Scherben der Stille’: Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with the support of the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation