United Kingdom Haydn, Poulenc, Ligeti and Strauss: James O’Donnell (organ), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. 10.2.2017. (AS)
Haydn – Symphony No.22 in E flat, The Philosopher
Poulenc – Concerto for organ, strings and timpani in G minor
Ligeti – Atmosphères
Strauss – Also sprach Zarathustra
What an interestingly balanced and diverse programme this was, containing works representing eighteenth-century classicism, 1930s Paris, the mid-European 1960s avant-garde and late nineteenth-century romanticism. It was a particular pleasure to hear the Haydn symphony, not one of the more familiar late works, but a fine example of the composer’s earlier style. How amazingly consistent he was in creating work after work that shows the highest quality of invention and craftsmanship. The Philosopher Symphony is scored for strings, two horns, bassoon and two cor anglais instead of the usual oboes. The darker than usual tonal blend produced by the latter two instruments is strikingly effective, as is the construction of the work, which defies the then conventional symphonic form by opening with a slow movement.
Orozco-Estrada conventionally reduced his forces in this work to some three dozen players; this certainly ensured clean and clear textures, while his sympathetic direction brought about a lively, expressive and characterful performance. Tempi were judiciously chosen and everything sounded absolutely exemplary to this listener.
James O’Donnell is no stranger to the Poulenc Organ Concerto: this was his third performance of the work that I have heard in as many years. The first of these, in this same hall and with the same orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, which took place in March 2014, has been preserved on disc on the LPO’s own label (review). O’Donnell’s playing of the concerto has not changed at all: his approach is strong and quite measured, with the work’s serious qualities emphasised rather more than its skittish aspects. The orchestral playing seemed even more sprightly and more controlled rhythmically than it had been in 2014: there is always a balance problem in this concerto, but on this occasion the orchestral contribution held its own rather more effectively against the big Festival Hall solo instrument.
As the title rather implies, Ligeti’s Atmosphères is a slow-moving piece, but enormously impressive in its imaginative, evocative range of sonorities: these are such as to cause one to think that the players on the platform are reinforced by electronic devices. But no, Ligeti has conjured his sound world purely from orchestral forces that are large but not extensive – there is no percussion apart from a piano whose strings are softly struck with a stick. The length of the piece, at nine or so minutes, is just right. What a comparison there is between the work of this master, composed in 1961, and similar and often unfortunately longer essays written in a similar vein by more recent and lesser talents. It sounds absolutely up to date (as does, say Roberto Gerhard’s Fourth Symphony, written at about the same time), because it takes music as far as it can travel in terms of the destruction of tonality and the abandonment of conventional rhythm and structure. Pity some composers of today, who strive to express something new, often through the desperate use of ever more exotic instrumentation, frequently involving big ensembles with a battery of bizarre percussion. Alas, they have nowhere to go.
There is a link between the Ligeti and Strauss works in that excerpts of both were used in the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. There can be few in our classically unmusical population who are not familiar, through that film or some other connotation, with the magisterial evocation of sunrise that begins Also sprach Zarathustra. To the casual listener, the work starts to fall away in interest after this arresting beginning, but to those who trouble to listen closer it reveals itself as an example of Strauss at his very best. Orozco-Estrada’s total involvement in the work was clear. He obtained some lovely playing from the orchestra, particularly in the softer, mellow string passages, and he successfully combined a strong, clear overall presentation of the work with numerous and affecting examples of warm expression and careful attention to every detail. His unerring grasp of the four very different styles demanded by the works in this concert showed us exactly why he was chosen as the LPO’s Principal Guest Conductor in 2015.