United Kingdom Debussy, Lindberg, Wagner and Scriabin: Barbara Hannigan (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 28.1.2015 (AS)
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Magnus Lindberg: Accused: three interrogations for soprano and orchestra (world premiere)
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde – Prelude to Act I
Scriabin: Le poème de l’extase, Op. 54
Debussy’s music for D’Annunzio’s play Le martyre de Saint Sébastien is an example of his late creativity at is finest, and even the four so-called “Symphonic Fragments” of the score are rarely played. So it was a great pity that, owing to the unexpected length of Lindberg’s new work, the advertised Martyre pieces had to be jettisoned in favour of the shorter but much more familiar L’après-midi d’un faune. I do hope that Jurowski will re-programme the longer item at an early opportunity: the fact that he delivered a beautifully fluid, sensitive account of the replacement work only intensified feelings of regret at the loss of what might have. But why did he play this piece with a reduced string section? Some of the music’s natural sheen was missing in consequence.
Magnus Lindberg’s new score seeks to represent a counterpoint between a solo soprano, who sings the texts of dialogues between three interrogators and their victims, and a judgemental orchestral commentary. Lindberg has taken his texts from transcripts of interviews that took place at the time of the French Revolution, East Germany in the early 1970s and an American WikiLeaks case of 2010. It is slightly confusing that the soprano takes the roles of both the accusers and the accused in all three cases: perhaps the dramatic effect would have been enhanced if two solo singers had been employed.
Barbara Hannigan, whom London audiences had heard only days earlier in a highly dramatic performance of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre (review), now gave a strikingly heroic performance of what sounded to be an extremely difficult solo role; one in which she was not given any real rest over a half-hour span.
The work as a whole proves the most sheerly attractive sounds that I have heard from a Lindberg score, since the orchestration is beguilingly lush. The composer professes to use serial techniques, but the results sound mildly atonal and even tonal at times, especially when near-quotes from Falla’s El amor brujo are heard. What does this work have to do with the case, I wonder? In general, the style of early Alban Berg was not too far away.
A problem lies in the fact that the texts of Accused themselves are not very exciting, and it was difficult to relate Hannigan’s acrobatic vocal feats to any very dramatic elements in the interrogations. Nor did the orchestral commentary, colourful though it was, seem to have much relevance to the comings and goings of the sung dialogue. It was a puzzling work, but one that fell pleasantly enough on the ear.
After the interval we heard a very expressively wrought Tristan Prelude. It was interesting to see Jurowski use precisely subdivided beats even in the opening phrases of this piece: such an unusually direct ploy could have lessened Wagner’s evocation of mystery and foreboding, but these qualities were very much in evidence.
Jurowski is a great champion of Scriabin’s music, and the concert ended with a brilliantly executed account of Le poème de l’extase – one in which the composer’s seemingly obsessive repetitions of the same or similar phrases did not seem to be excessive. The shape and argument of the score as a whole was conveyed with great skill, and it was good to hear the magnificent sounds of the hall’s new organ underpinning climaxes so effectively.