Rattle and the LSO Unveil an Important New Work by Helen Grime

21/04/2018

Grime and Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 19.4.2018. (MB)

Helen Grime – Woven Space (world premiere)

Mahler – Symphony no.9

No doubting the important performance here: the world premiere of Helen Grime’s Woven Space, commissioned by the Barbican for the LSO and Simon Rattle. Alas, Rattle’s recent way with Mahler and indeed with much central repertoire prior to Schoenberg continued: not so extreme as some performances, yet still highly mannered, and for the most part lacking in direction. The Barbican Hall does not help, of course: too small, the sound constricted, yet another indication of why London so desperately needs a decent large concert hall. Yet that would not, could not have changed the fundamental problems with the performance, lapped up, needless to say, by the audience. I was left longing for something along the lines of Bernard Haitink with the same orchestra.

The good news, however, was very good. Grime’s piece, in three movements, had apparently been offered in a sneak aural glimpse last autumn, the first movement, ‘Fanfares’ heard at the opening of the LSO’s season. Its opening éclat, hard-edged (tuned percussion and strings in particular), even icy, yet inviting, proved not only to be éclat, soon developing, perhaps not entirely unlike later Boulez. At the same time, there is something fantastical to it too, almost akin to a tone poem in the Dukas line; her Virga, written for the same orchestra in 2007, performed again by them in February, did not seem so entirely distant in that sense at least. Tautness of rhythm, unity of purpose from Rattle and the LSO could hardly be faulted. Bells and solo cor anglais – I could not help but think of Berlioz – may not have been reducible to a narrative; nor, however, did they rule it out. For there are fanfares, certainly, but as part of something more, be it a narrative as such or something which, in performance, fulfils a similar function: perhaps the structure by Laura Ellen Bacon, a 2009 Chatsworth Park enclosure within an enclosure, after which Woven Space is named. There is stillness too, unease, I think, and consequently something darker. Fascinating in its multivalence – again, perhaps not entirely unlike Boulez’s Notations, albeit with a smaller orchestra – it must have whetted the appetite for more in September.

More we now heard. ‘Woven Space’ is also the name given to the second of the three movements. It seems to pick up, loosely – not, I think, necessarily in terms of material as such – from the ‘uneasy’ section of the first movement. There are similar sonorities, ‘hard’ and ‘softer’, yet this is no mere repetition. I fancied, looking ahead aurally, that some of the string lines, whilst more tangled, might be hinting at late Mahler, but perhaps that was nothing more than my own personal fancy. At any rate, the harmonies have little in common. There is a strong sense of descent, in the sense of downward motion, played out amongst three competing choirs, distinct yet not unvarying: roughly, strings, woodwind and percussion, and brass. What initially seems to be the still heart of the work reveals itself to be at least as much its dramatic cauldron. I liked the way it simply stopped once it had no more to say: less shattering than Wozzeck – what is not?! – yet perhaps in its line. ‘Course’, the third movement, presents different motion and different forms of motion: upwards, this time, swirling and perhaps even swarming, yet with other forces competing against that primary tendency. At a certain point, the tension built up starts to dissipate, preparing the way for a telescoped, binding (that woven structure again?) conclusion that is no mere return. New lines, new developments open up, or seem to: the uncertainty is part, I suspect, of the fascination. Again, the music stops; again, we are left wanting more.

I feared the worst at the very opening of the first movement of the Mahler, yet once the second violins entered, Rattle engendered a far greater sense of momentum. Indeed, the unease that pervaded roughly the first half of the movement, pervading in particular its progress, was enlightening in its suggestion of the implacable. Mahler’s music was made stranger without merely sounding perverse. We were made to listen, especially in its hushed, liminal passages, their exaggerations notwithstanding. Ultimately, though, it became clear that these were more passages, even sections, of interest than building blocks within a structure, let alone dialectics within its formal elucidation. The sense of connection, however complex, Rattle had brought to the first half generally eluded him here. The dawn of the recapitulation sounded duly monstrous in its combination of beauty and ugliness; alas, its disintegration proved all too distended.

The second movement proved strong of heft, yet heavy, in more than one sense, in stylisation. Fair enough, one might say, and initially I did. But do we not need something behind the parody of a parody, perhaps of a parody? At best, some of the Schoenbergian transformation of rhythms – seemingly, intriguingly, founded in rhythm and then extending itself to melody – had one listen anew. In the absence of Schoenbergian, or indeed other discernible method, though, the performance began to sound merely bloated. There is much to be said for problematizing repertoire in performance; Boulez, for instance, often did just that. Yet Boulez’s clarity of purpose, whatever one might have thought of it and its underlying ideology, proved once again elusive here. Structure and form less dissolved – an enticing, almost Debussyan prospect – than lost their way. It was above all the loss of impetus that concerned most, far more than slowness of tempo as such. Alas, I remained resolutely unmoved.

The ‘Rondo-Burleske’ fared better, especially to start with, as if the music had come back into focus: not tamed, thank goodness, yet with a guiding thread to help us through the labyrinth. The LSO responded, so it seemed, in kind. Again, later on, there seemed to be some loss of way, yet to a lesser extent. And so, when the violins dug into the opening phrase of the final ‘Adagio’, it seemed to mean something. Rattle could not resist moulding the theme that emerged, yet not unreasonably so. He certainly did not take the easy way through this movement, which is to be applauded; its extremities were acknowledged, without abandonment of a sense of harmonic motion. A passage in which string vibrato was withdrawn made its chaste point; so too did the relative rarity of giving the strings their heard. If the final goodbye were perhaps unduly prolonged – it takes a Boulez not to succumb – then such a reluctance is eminently comprehensible. Even here, though, I longed for the relative straightforwardness of a performance Rattle gave with the same orchestra round about 2000. There is much to be said for letting musical contradictions overflow into performance; Mahler should never sound too easy, let alone bureaucratic. At the same time, however, his music too needs its ‘woven space’.

Mark Berry

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