Thought-Provoking Programming and Performances from Elder and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brennan, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky. Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano); London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 5.2.2015 (CC)

Patrick BrennanBallabile (first performance)
Berlioz  – Les nuits d’été
Tchaikovsky –  Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique”


This concert demonstrated fascinating programming from the LSO. The premiere of Patrick Brennan’s Ballabile (2013/14), commissioned via the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme, was fine of concept and impeccably realised technically. The title refers to a passage in which all the members of a corps-de-ballet dance together. Brennan (b. 1985) states that he has opted to write music of texture and colour rather than melody. The keening figures of the opening seemed to point towards the music of James MacMillan and, as the piece progressed, it became obvious that Brennan is a master of orchestration. Some simultaneities were positively luminous. The slower portion of the piece forms the most part of it; the faster concluding section with its punctuating jabs and exciting rhythms was most effective. Ballabile is certainly worth a re-visit.

 The well-loved mezzo, Susan Graham, who replaced Alice Coote, was an inspired soloist in Berlioz’s song cycle. Elder ensured chamber music-like clarity and intimacy to the entre performance from his reduced forces, while Graham seemed technically infallible, her voice gorgeous, her diction impeccable. This was a performance to treasure. Antiphonally-placed violins paid off in the second song, Le spectre de la rose, which unfolded perfectly naturally. Elder, so experienced in the opera pit, held his players in check so that there was never any chance of them dominating his soloist. Graham’s mezzo had no problems with the lower register, and neither did she strain up top. A remarkable, magical reading.

 Finally, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth in probably the most affectionate reading I have ever heard. The orchestra clearly responded well to Elder’s approach, with a silken violin tone and superb control (special mention to the violas and to the solo bassoonist, Rachael Gough). The grace that permeated the second movement meant we actually had to wait until the third movement to experience anything like full-voltage Tchaikovsky. Elder, though, was happy to point out the connections of some of this music to the world of Tchaikovsky’s ballets. The finale, blessed with superbly controlled strings, breathed beautifully without taking us to a place of absolute stillness. This was a thought-provoking reading to end a thought-provoking concert.

 Colin Clarke

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