Six months has passed since my previous concert with the London Symphony Orchestra and their Music Director Sir Simon Rattle. Today, those wonderful performances of Berg and Beethoven at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie seem to belong into a whole another era, a golden age of yore.
Since then, the performing arts have faced an unparalleled catastrophe, brought upon by the COVID-19. The closings of concert halls and opera houses silenced the orchestras more or less globally, resulting in a serious economic and psychological blow to the whole industry. In countries where the arts organizations operate without public funding, for the most part, at least, the orchestras have taken the hardest blow.
With the crisis still upon us, seeing the LSO and Rattle enter the stage of the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday evening to perform their first concert together as an orchestra ever since the mid-March lockdown was a deeply emotional moment. Always a rejuvenating experience, this year’s BBC Proms also has the most profound message to convey, with the festival serving as a beacon of hope after a long, desolate night.
Programme-wise, the LSO could not have chosen a more befitting, inspiring and uplifting playlist. With Dame Mitsuko Uchida as soloist, the orchestra and Rattle provided their online audiences with a dazzling selection of musical masterstrokes, encompassing over four hundred years of our sonic history.
Two Canzons by Giovanni Gabrieli, from the famous 1597 collection of Sacrae symphoniae were sounded from the Royal Albert Hall galleries in by the marvellous LSO brass, framing a sequence of pieces by Sir Edward Elgar, Ludwig van Beethoven and György Kurtág.
Written in 1905 for an all-Elgar programme, with the composer conducting then newly-established LSO, the Introduction and Allegro for string orchestra is a beautiful study. Hovering between chamber music and orchestral writing, the score calls for a quartet of soloist, appearing in dialogue with a large string ensemble.
Onstage, as indicated in the score, the soloists were seated, while the orchestral strings were standing, a line-up reminiscent of the LSO’s recent practice with Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
With Rattle on the podium, the LSO strings gave a soaring performance. Fine-tuned to this splendid music, the players embraced Elgar’s sonorities with conviction, to an enchanting effect. Well paced by Rattle, Elgar’s structural design was conveyed organically, resulting in a fine performance; a perfect onstage response to the thrilling offstage Gabrieli.
With the LSO brass and strings thus showcased, the stage was set for Uchida’s solo appearance. Hearing Beethoven’s proto-minimalist textures take shape and hue in the empty Royal Albert Hall had a spell-ilke effect. I don’t think I’ve ever found myself so deeply in tune with this iconic music. With minutiae detail, Uchida’s performance bridged perfectly to the ensuing realm of György Kurtág.
Separated by 186 years, …quasi una fantasia… shares both its title and opus number with the Beethoven sonata. Scored for piano and a large chamber ensemble divided into groups, dispersed throughout the auditorium, Kurtág’s score is one of his most perfect creations.
As usual for Kurtág, the musical material is utmost distilled and refined, resulting in unique honesty and clarity of expression. There is no ego at play. Rather, the listener is engaged in a procession-like journey through a nocturnal realm, shrouded in surround sound. More ritual than performance, …quasi una fantasia… is a tremendous experience, especially with musicians of this stature.
The LSO, joined by Uchida on keyboard and the composer Thomas Adès playing offstage percussion (his keys, to be exact), transformed Kurtág’s score into astounding sonic entity under Rattle’s dedicated direction; a transfiguration, no less.
Following the second Gabrieli Canzon, an astounding world premiere was heard, namely Thomas Adès’s Dawn – Chacony for orchestra at any distance (2020). The music is scored for an orchestra of flexible size and seating, thus enabling various types of distanced performance.
With cimbalom, tuned gongs, bells, vibraphone an harp added, Dawn is a resplendent musical manifestation of a perpetual dawn, or as the composer puts it, a daybreak seen from space.
Musically, Dawn is rooted in wondrous simplicity, something that has previously occurred en passant in the Adès oeuvre, always to a dazzling effect. Inspired bythe baroque chacony, Henry Purcell’s signature semi-open form, Adès builds a formidably resilient, sincere musical organism, fabulously sounded by the distanced orchestra.
Words fail to quite capture the profound beauty and clarity of this most extraordinary music. The gentle string counterpoint provides the dimly-lit surroundings for the rays of light provided by the glistening solo wind lines, coloured by percussion.
Rattle and the LSO owned Dawn from the opening pizzicato to the stunning arpeggio closing, unveiling a completely unique musical statement, to a cathartic effect. As a well-earned salute, Rattle and the musicians gave Adès a heartfelt ovation, one undoubtably joined by a deeply moved global audience.
Written during both a deep inner crisis and the global disaster of WWII, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5 in D Major (1938-43) is an absolute masterpiece, unprecedented in its refined, sublime expression.
In the late thirties, Vaughan Williams faced a creative block, which lead him to both re-study the works of Jean Sibelius and to take another look at his then work-in-progress, the opera, or morality, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1921-51). An eventual breakthrough out of the crisis was the creative process leading up to the Fifth Symphony, premiered at the BBC Proms on 24 June 1943, conducted by the composer.
Vaughan Williams made his gratitude to Sibelius clear by dedicating the symphony to the Finnish master. In the composer’s manuscript are inscribed the original words ”Dedicated without permission and with sincerest flattery to Jean Sibelius whose example is worthy of all imitation”, eventually shortened in print to ”Dedicated without permission to Jean Sibelius.”
The symphony is scored for double winds and brass, with strings and timpani, yielding to a total of c. fifty players, thus making the piece just about playable under the COVID-19 safety measures.
The first movement, Preludio, opens with a tranquil horn-call, answered by soft violins over a pedal point by lower strings. From these first bars on, the symphony bears ravishing modal lyricism, first manifested in Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910/1913/1919).
With economy and invention worthy of late Sibelius, the movement grows from its subtle opening to wondrous sounding spheres, shun of all sentimentality, yet ever deeply moving. Following a stormy climax reminiscent of the Pastoral Symphony (1919-21), the movement competes its arch by fading into distance, accompanied by those very horn calls fro the opening.
There are fascinating parallels between the Vaughan Williams symphony and J. R. R. Tolkien’s magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings (1937-55). Both works convey a profound sense of loss and sorrow, while paving the way for a vision of a new beginning, one of hope and promise.
Following the Preludio, an agile Scherzo ensues, with dexterous string and wind passages, punctuated by sublime timpani. The music evokes an exquisite realm of fantasy, with a fascinating play of light and shadow. Albeit brief, the Scherzo is no mere interlude, but a concise sounding arch.
The Romanza third movement opens with pianissimo sustained strings, joined by a haunting melody for cor anglais, a direct quote from act 1, scene 2 of The Pilgrim’s Progress, sung to the words ”He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death”. Originally RVW included these words on the opening page of the third movement, but they were subsequently omitted from publication.
The third movement is the dramatic core of the symphony, built upon a fine-tuned orchestral dramaturgy. Again, in a Sibelian vein, the music is devoid of big gestures, forcing the listener truly concentrate in each and every detail.
RVW set his finale as an outstanding Passacaglia, with musical material from previous movements woven into contrapuntal fabric over a ground bass. This astonishing panorama climaxes with a fabulous fortissimo return of the symphony’s opening subject from bar 215 on. A tranquil, yet marvellously intense coda ensues, leading the symphony to its life-affirming conclusion.
With Rattle, the LSO gave the Vaughan Williams Fifth a performance of a lifetime. Clad in intense beauty, with extraordinary detail and nuance, the music was unveiled within a wonderfully architectured symphonic whole.
Though distanced onstage, or perhaps precisely for that reason, the symphony bore an aura of intimacy, as if the fifty members of the LSO were turned into one large chamber ensemble. The textures were ever translucent, glimmering in riveting harmonic colours.
During all my years in music, few concerts have equalled this one in intensity, either emotionally or aurally. May this evening herald the break of dawn, light rekindled in music.
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Dame Mitsuko Uchida, piano
Giovanni Gabrieli: Sacrae symphoniae (1597) – Canzon septimi et octavi toni a 12. Performing edition by Eric Crees
Sir Edward Elgar: Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47 (1905) for string orchestra
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata quasi una fantasia for pianoforte in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (1801): I. Adagio sostenuto
György Kurtág: …quasi una fantasia…, Op. 27, No. 1 (1987-88) for piano and groups of instruments dispersed in space
Giovanni Gabrieli: Sacrae symphoniae (1597) – Canzon noni toni a 12. Performing edition by Eric Crees
Thomas Adès: Dawn – Chacony for orchestra at any distance (2020)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 in D Major (1938-43)
Royal Albert Hall, London
Sunday 30 August 7.30 pm
© Jari Kallio