Album review: The LA Phil Centennial Gala Blu-ray culminates in astonishing takes on Lutosławski and Bjarnason

LA Phil Centennial Blu ray

On record, the Los Angeles Philharmonic 2019 centennial has been celebrated with several notable releases over the past year-or-so. In March 2019, Deutsche Grammophon put out a handsome box set of LA Phil audio and video recordings from their back catalogue. In addition, a new two-disc concert album Celebrating John Williams, conducted by the orchestra’s Music & Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel, was released. 

In the download realm, DG has put out two more albums with Dudamel, the world premiere recordings of Andrew Norman’s Sustain (2018) as well as John Adams’s new piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018) with its dedicatee Yuja Wang performing the solo part.    

In addition, Sony Classical released the first recording of Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto (2017) with the composer conducting LA Phil and Yo-Yo Ma as soloist. 

The latest in the series comes from C Major Entertainment, a video recording of the LA Phil Centennial Birthday Gala from the Walt Disney Concert Hall on 24 October 2019, with the podium duties shared between Dudamel, Salonen and Conductor Emeritus Zubin Mehta.  

The ultimate highlight of the programme is, without question, Witold Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 4 (1988-92). Commissioned by the orchestra, and premiered in 1993 with the composer conducting, the symphony has been a part of the LA Phil repertoire ever since. Conducted by Salonen, the orchestra performed the score extensively on a tour following the premiere and also made the premiere recording for Sony Classical soon after. 

The Fourth Symphony is a wonderful summa of Lutosławski’s dazzlingly original grasp of the symphonic form. Partly rooted in musical ideas manifesting themselves in the Second (1965-67) and the Third Symphonies (1972-83), the Fourth refines Lutosławski’s expression to sublime perfection. 

The continuous twenty-two-minute arch of the symphony is divided into two movements, comprising an opening introduction and a main movement. The music comes into being with subtle string pulse, leading to the first statement from solo clarinet. Trumpet signals herald the transition, as the music gains momentum, bridging into the movement proper.

Throughout the symphony, Lutosławski employs limited aleatroicism, his trademark from the mid-sixties onwards. While all musical material is written out in full, there are passages in the score where the shaping of the temporal details are left to the performers. Within a pre-determined whole, these passages add interpretational freedom, one of the key aspects in Lutosławski’s music.

In the main second movement, aspects of the traditional symphonic form, such as a wondrous scherzo-like passage or an intricate slow section, are integrated into one sonic canvas, clad in glimmering orchestral garb. With symphonic unity worthy of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony (1918-24), the musical material is woven together to a spellbinding whole. 

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The performance here is nothing short of astonishing. From the opening pulse on, the listener is step away by Lutosławski’s musical imagination. Ever well articulated, the music unfolds aptly paced, with marvellous clarity. The wealth of instrumental detail is tremendously uplifting; be it the alluring clarinet solo of the opening, the silver trumpets resounding with phased echo or those luminous string soli over the spell-like pedal point from the vibraphone, the LA Phil and Salonen have a perfect mastery over this astounding score. 

The Lutosławski 4 recorded here is the third(!) one by Salonen and the LA Phil available, alongside the 1994 Sony Classical studio recording and the 2006 DG Concerts digital download, and maybe the most enjoyable. The interaction between the conductor and the orchestra is a joy to watch, especially with all the aleatoricism involved. And the sheer joy of music-making between the orchestra and the Conductor Laureate, evident on each and every bar, provides the most rewarding experience of this late 20th century masterpiece.     

Lutosławski’s Fourth is surrounded by two works dating from LA Phil’s first-ever season, namely Maurice Ravel’s choreographic poem La Valse (1919-20) and Igor Stravinsky’s rescored suite from The Firebird (L’oiseau de feu, 1910/1919). 

Back in 1906 Ravel began envisioning an orchestral piece called Wien, a symphonic tribute to the waltz and Johann Strauss II, with a nod to Chabrier as well. However, over the years, this initial idea faded into the background, as the composer finally set forth to actually writing the score in 1919-20. 

Within the newly titled choreographic poem, the waltz and dance macabre become intertwined in a whirlwind of a panorama, clad in alluring orchestral garb, rooted in intoxicating rhythmic flow. 

La Valse grows from a rhythmic cell, uttered by the divisi double basses. Bassoons, horns, harp, timpani and the upper strings join, paving the way for the first tutti passage. In the course of the development, Ravel constructs and deconstructs his musical material, giving rise to a dazzling sonic tension. 

The seductive danger of the music is fused into a surreal stream of sound. As the innate instability of the material goes critical, the music blasts into self-annihilation. 

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Conducted by Mehta, La Valse is given a gracefully paced, voluptuous performance, with extraordinary attention to detail. Mehta’s take may not be as grippingly obsessive like some I’ve heard recently, ones conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and François-Xavier Roth in particular, but when it comes to showcasing orchestral splendor, this reading by the LA Phil and Mehta is a veritable feast. 

Interestingly, La Valse was also performed as a part of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Centennial Gala in 2018. Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, the compelling Severance Hall performance is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the one from Disney Hall. Still, both performances yield to enjoyable results, gaining more weight upon each listen. 

Of the three suites from The Firebird Stravinsky compiled over the years, 1911, 1919 and 1945, respectively, the 1919 version is the one most frequently programmed. Championed by Leonard Bernstein and Claudio Abbado, among others, the 1919 suite is probably the next best thing to the complete ballet score, the guise The Firebird is most often heard nowadays, as well as the one Stravinsky himself conducted on many occasions, including his 80th birthday tour back in 1962. 

Programme-wise, the twenty-five minute suite is befitting a choice. Compiled for Ernest Ansermet during Stravinsky’s WWI exile in Switzerland, the score contains Introduction, Dance (and Variation) of the Firebird, The Princesses’ Khorovod, Infernal Dance, Berceuse and Finale. For this suite, Stravinsky simplified his original scoring somewhat, especially concerning the low reeds and the brass section, thus making the music more performable in post-WWI realities. 

With Dudamel, the music is clad in a resplendent garb by the LA Phil. Stravinsky’s score glows in resplendent spectrum of orchestral colour, highlighting the gorgeous harmonic realm of The Firebird. From the darkly-hued Introduction a sonic adventure unfolds, leading to a sequence of wonderful dances. The sublime, graceful beauty of the Khorovod is formidably contrasted by the manic uproar of the Infernal Dance, while the enthralling Berceuse paves the way for the rejoicing Finale.  

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In terms of programming, the only oddball here is the very open piece, Richard Wagner’s Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862-64/1867), conducted by Mehta. Though musically splendid in every way, it stands out from the rest of the programme as a separate entity. This is probably due to the fact that the programme was originally planned to begin with a new fanfare, commissioned from André Previn. Sadly, Previn’s death intervened, leaving the new piece unrealized.           

Even though the Meistersinger Overture is probably not the most imaginative choice for a centennial programme, the performance itself is nevertheless a very inspiring one. Interestingly, the LA Phil sonics combined with Mehta’s dignified pacing, the music bears more of an aura of a Hollywood golden age film score than that of Bayreuth. A befitting allusion, given that many of the LA Phil musicians appear on film score recordings sessions alongside their symphonic careers. 

With this performance, we are also reminded by the fact that the now-classic Hollywood sound world is, essentially, one of the musical descendants of those riveting Wagner music dramas.    

The concert closes with one of the most intriguing of the fifty-or-so new pieces commissioned by the orchestra for its centennial, Daníel Bjarnason’s From Space I saw Earth (2019). Commemorating the space race of the 1960s and the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, Bjarnason’s twelve-minute piece adopts its title from cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, recorded during the first manned spaceflight on 12 April 1961. 

Scored for orchestra and three conductors, From Space I saw Earth divides the onstage orchestra into three groups, one consisting the string section and two ensembles of wind, brass, keyboards and percussion. In addition, some offstage, including crotales and a snare drum are employed. 

With Dudamel conducting the strings on stage front and Salonen and Mehta taking care of the two ensembles upstage, From Space I Saw Earth is a compelling thing not only for the ear but also for the eye.   

The music begins while the conductors enter the stage, with a ringing ambience of the antiphonal tubular bells. Once on their podiums, the conductors cue their ensembles to join. Each of the three orchestral groups inhabit a universe somewhat of their own, as far as tempi are concerned. Yet, these layers interact in the most fascinating ways, giving rise to a fabulous orchestral fabric. 

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Exceeding way beyond mere piece d’occasion, From Space I Saw Earth begins with a slow introduction, rooted in intriguingly layered harmonic colours. Over its ten-minute course, these sonic cloud formations travel though constant transformation, resulting in a formidably immersive aural experience. A worthy conclusion for the Centennial Gala.      

Filmed with subtle craft by the C Major crew, the gala concert is given a delightfully straightforward presentation, without any unnecessary gimmickry or fuss. The video direction is always rooted in the music, focusing on the musicians and the conductors, instead of arty ceiling pans. The audio engineering is absolutely spot-on, combining sonic clarity and spatial hue quite ideally. 

As a bonus, the album contains a 52 minute documentary on LA Phil by Lazlo Molnar. While there is an impressive line-up of interviewees, including the LA Times music critic Mark Swed, the orchestra’s Creative Chair John Adams, the ex-president and CEO Deborah Borda, alongside Dudamel, Salonen and Mehta, the documentary keeps hovering on a somewhat superficial level, ending up being more of an extended commercial than actual in-depth surge into the ecosystem of one of the most splendid orchestras or our times.   

 

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Zubin Mehta, conductor

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

 

Richard Wagner: Overture to ”Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, WWV 96 (1862-64/1867)

Maurice Ravel: La Valse – Poème chorégraphique pour orchestre (1919-20)

Witold Lutosławski: Symphony No. 4 (1988-92)

Igor Stravinsky: L’oiseau de feu – Suite (1919)

Daníel Bjarnason: From Space I saw Earth (2019) for orchestra and three conductors

 

Recorded at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 24 October 2019

C Major 753504 (2020), 1 Blu-ray (plus documentary)

© Jari Kallio   

Photos ©  Craig T. Mathew & Greg Gundt  

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