Thomas Adès Gets the LPO’s New Season off to a Cracking Start

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Adès, Lutosławski: Kirill Gerstein (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Thomas Adès (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 26.9.2018. (CS)

Kirill Gerstein (c) Marco Borggreve

Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
AdèsIn Seven Days
Lutosławski – Symphony No.3

The London Philharmonic Orchestra set out their stall in confident and candid fashion at the Royal Festival Hall as conductor Thomas Adès led them in a cracking and crackling season-opener, with two symphonic masterpieces of the twentieth century, which unleash ferocious energies that at times threaten to break through the works’ steely structures, framing Adès’ own exploration of unstoppable generative forces, In Seven Days.

The musicians started as they meant to go on, with the whip-crack flourish that kicks off Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements initiating a fast and furious conversation between competing rhythmic and motivic arguments.  Despite the ruthlessness of the motoring momentum, the restless alternations of timbre and the density of the dialogues, Adès made sure that we heard every one of the nuts, bolts and threads which make up the machine.  This was obviously a meticulously prepared account, and it was delivered in a precise and economical manner, the conductor’s unfussy exactitude indicating, too, the degree of trust between conductor and players.  The onslaught of the first movement was taut but never rigid, as the repetitions and interplay of the elements, which are themselves often quite small and confined, generated a huge energy.  After the burning anger, in the Andante the harp’s coolness replaced the mechanistic driving of the piano which had been to the fore.  The aggressive, unceasing cut-and-thrust of the final movement was tempered a little by the elasticity of the syncopation but severity and violence dominated.

It’s hard to avoid hearing militaristic inferences in the Symphony, and indeed Stravinsky himself set out a ‘war-programme’, explaining, for example, that the first movement represented ‘scorched earth tactics in China’, the central episode for clarinet, piano and strings being ‘conceived as a series of instrumental conversations to accompany a cinematographic scene showing the Chinese people scratching and digging in their fields’.  The episodic character which Adès crafted so consummately into a coherent whole is indeed cinematic in flavour (and the second movement had its origins in an abandoned film score for the ‘Apparition of the Virgin’ scene in Franz Werfel’s The Song of Bernadette), but with characteristic irony Stravinsky about-turned, declaring ‘in spite what I have said, the Symphony is not programmatic’, and it was the ‘abstract’ nature of the Symphony which Adès impressed upon us here, creating a vast Cubist aural-picture.

Adès’ In Seven Days for piano and orchestra had itself originally possessed a ‘visual dimension’, being presented alongside video projections by Tal Rosner, but here the music was trusted to conjure its own images and proved the most natural partner for Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements.  In both works, concerto and symphonic elements come together, the large-scale architecture of each unfolding as it assimilates diverse commentaries from soloists and soli.  Indeed, in his 1948 monograph on the composer, Alexander Tansman claimed that he had heard Stravinsky play some of the music of the first movement in 1942 and that it was intended for a symphonic work with a concertante part for piano.

Adès’ soloist doesn’t so much dialogue or do battle with the tutti forces as move forward alongside and around, above and below the orchestra.  Pianist Kirill Gerstein relished the extremes of dark and light, and the deep hollows and sparkling peaks that the soloist traverses, playing with a glistening precision, the brittleness of which was both beautiful and bold, and which was complemented by the tuned percussion’s sonic kaleidoscope.  Somehow Adès assimilates visceral primordial forces with highly refined eloquence, and in the third movement, ‘Land-Grass-Trees-’, the LPO communicated the fecund continuity of the evolving musical material, building from dark pits to a blazing climactic zenith.  The panoply of fine orchestral solos explored every tonal hue, creating a sense of all the colours of the rainbow being assembled in readiness for the supreme act of creation.  In Seven Days begins with ‘Chaos’ and ends in ‘Contemplation’, but what one really felt most strongly was Adès’ supreme control – as conductor and composer – of the organic unfolding of creative and musical matter.  Following the piano’s invigorating, all-embracing exploration of terrains both earth-bound and cosmic, Gerstein showed us the expressive power of Adès’ smaller forms, offering as his encore the composer’s gentle, pristinely defined Mazurka No.2.

The same sense of organic growth, triggered by a bullet-blast, prevailed in the work which followed the interval, Lutosławski’s Third Symphony, though what was interesting here was the way Adès employed a very different technique to that which we had seen in the Symphony in Three Movements to achieve quite similar effects.  Now, the scrupulous efficiency and exactitude was replaced by an astonishing alternation of almost brutal sign-giving and still restraint – though there was nothing reckless, laissez-faire or unpredictable about Adès’ gestures, no matter how spontaneous the flicks of the wrist, slashing downward swipes, swirling left-hand or rapid baton-jabs may have seemed.  The conductor was clearly submerged within this score, both living and guiding it, and the idiosyncratic method worked its magic on the LPO musicians who were clearly inspired by Adès’ conviction and vision.

Once again, the many-layered orchestral strands were fastidiously delineated, the obvious care of the crafting contrasting strangely with the violence of the Symphony’s glinting, flashing fractures and explosions.  Adès created spaces through which we could hear the subtleties of the timbral diversity but he never allowed the driving linear impetus to weaken, from the hammering repetitions of the opening to the passionate but foreboding blaze towards the closing climax.

Despite the ambiguity of Stravinsky’s remarks about the ‘programme’ of his Symphony in Three Movements, his comment that it was a reflection of ‘this our arduous time of sharp and shifting events, of despair and hope, of continual torments, of tension, and at last cessation and relief’ seemed powerfully relevant to both the shape-shifting explorations of In Seven Days and Lutosławski’s sprawling, skirling Symphony.  In their fiercely committed performance of these three works, veritable concertos for orchestra, the LPO threw down the gauntlet to the audience to follow them through the challenges and rewards of this season’s music-making, and it was immensely satisfying to see the large audience in the Royal Festival Hall looking both ready for and excited by this prospect.

Claire Seymour

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