United Kingdom Berg and Beethoven: Iwona Sobotka (soprano) Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Florian Boesch (baritone), London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra /Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London. 16.2.2020. (CSa)
Berg – Lulu Suite
Beethoven – Symphony No.9 in D minor (‘Choral’)
Alban Berg is reputed to have had a bust of Beethoven on his bedside table. A prominent member of the Second Viennese School venerating a member of the First? Certainly, these were reasons enough to pair Berg’s Lulu Suite with Beethoven’s mighty ‘Choral’ Symphony, as Sir Simon Rattle did in a blazingly brilliant Barbican Hall concert with the London Symphony Orchestra. There was perhaps another justification for combining these two works in the same programme. Both compositions broke the musical boundaries of their time, and, in their different ways, created paths to the music of the future.
Based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, Berg’s opera Lulu – written between 1929 and 1935 at the height of Vienna’s Age of Decadence – charts the downward descent of a well-kept mistress in Vienna who ends up as a murderer, a street prostitute and ultimately a victim of Jack the Ripper. Although Berg died before the opera was completed, he distilled it into a sensuous 35-minute suite, combining his teacher Schoenberg’s novel 12-tone serialism with the late nineteenth century romanticism of his other heroes: Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner and Richard Wagner. Berg’s sound world, at once melodic and discordant, is rather like looking at a familiar face through the bottom of a wine glass, recognisable but strangely out of focus.
Under Rattle, the LSO (which on this occasion included an alto saxophone and vibraphone) evocatively summoned up the giddy opulence of Vienna between the wars. The opening Rondo (Andante und Hymne) was sumptuously played by the orchestra’s rich strings, with particularly expressive contributions by woodwind and horns. Dazzling interventions from the brass section captured the dramatic shifts of mood in the second movement Ostinato. Berg – adapting Wedekind – wrote the words of the third movement Lied der Lulu (Lulu’s song), and provided the plaintive words of Countess Geschwitz for the woman she loved in the final Adagio. These were magificently sung by Polish soprano Iwona Sobotka who, combining both warmth of tone and bell-like clarity, particularly in the upper register, brought the texts to life.
Berg’s atmospheric depiction of Viennese degeneracy and impending chaos are a world away from the enlightened optimism and joy of Beethoven’s last symphony, or perhaps the seamy, dark, post-Freudian side of the same world. Rattle’s familiarity with the work – he required no score here- in no way diminished the freshness and or the phenomenal energy of his interpretation. From the shimmering pianissimo opening bars of the Allegro – the emergence of sound itself from a dark void of silence – Rattle marshalled the forces of this great orchestra and the 129-strong London Symphony Chorus to the ultimate limits of achievement. Maintaining momentum and perfect tempo with clean sweeping cuts of the baton in his right hand, he coaxed, implored and beseeched each section with the upturned palm of his left. A pulsating, jubilant Scherzo, in which the eight resonant basses, the precision-tooled timpani, and a bright-eyed trio of woodwind played a vibrant part, was followed by a noble Adagio molto e cantabile of indescribable poignancy. The finale, preceded by what Wagner called a Schrekensfanfare (a fanfare of terror), was executed with thrilling force. The great ‘Ode to Joy’ found the great Schubertian baritone Florian Boesch in fine fettle. Joined by tenor Robert Murray, mezzo Anna Stéphany, and the silver-voiced Iwona Sobotka, they together comprised an ecstatic quartet. The ultimate plaudit must go the chorus whose cohesive, word perfect participation brought the greatest symphony ever written to a majestic conclusion.
As wild applause and a beaming Rattle brought the orchestra and soloists to their feet, a member of the audience cried out ‘Long live Europe!’, reminding us, against all the odds, of the irrepressible optimism that lies at the heart of Beethoven’s masterpiece.