Simon Rattle and the LSO make a musical virtue of spatial separation at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms Live – Giovanni Gabrieli, Elgar, Beethoven, Kurtág, Adès, Vaughan Williams: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Four, 30.8.2020. (CS)

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Giovanni GabrieliSacrae symphoniae: Canzon septimi et octavi toni a 12 (performing edition by Eric Crees)
ElgarIntroduction and Allegro for string orchestra and string quartet Op.47
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in C sharp minor Op.27 No.2, ‘quasi una fantasia’ (‘Moonlight’), 1st movement
Kurtág – … quasi una fantasia
Giovanni GabrieliSacrae Symphoniae: Canzon noni toni a 12 (performing edition by Eric Crees)
AdèsDawn (BBC commission, world premiere)
Vaughan Williams – Symphony No.5 in D major

Watching the ‘First Night’ of this virtual Prom season, I had wondered why it had not been possible to allow some live audience members into cavernous Royal Albert Hall, one of the few venues surely where ‘space’ is not a problem – at least not in the context of the social distancing of a few hundred listeners.  Two nights later, Sir Simon Rattle – conducting his 75th Prom – and the London Symphony Orchestra made a virtue of the emptiness by presenting a programme of works the musical conversations of which absolutely depend upon antiphonal arguments and stereophonic spatial sculpting.

The polychoral splendour of Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzon septimi et octavi toni a 12 from the 1597 Sacrae symphoniae made for a magical opening.  The positioning of the LSO brass players in the ranks behind and above the platform, and in the Grand Tier, reflected the practice of disposing groups of conversing instruments around the interior of St Mark’s basilica and other monastic churches in Venice where Gabrieli performed his musical duties on feast days.  On such days, the sound must have taken an almost tangible form: a musical architecture in imitation of the grand cathedral in which it was presented, in homage to God.  One might have sensed a similar ‘spiritual’ dimension at the RAH, with the emphasis firmly on glory and celebration.

The dispersal of the players reminded one, too, of how challenging it is to play as a coherent ensemble when at a distance from one’s fellow musicians.  Despite this, the balance, coordination and precision of the LSO players was as pristine as their sound was comfortingly rounded, refined and glowing.  But the shift from duple to triple time is tricky: it was fascinating watching Rattle use small but tight gestures to keep the various threads, surging and swelling from above and around, in neat formation.  In the concluding passages, with the ‘corner’ negotiated, the players seemed freed to relish their independent entrances, the interlocking cross-group rhythms and their individual melodies.

There was no pause for breath after the final shining cadence.  The Sacrae symphoniae served as a sort of prelude to Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, which was written for the LSO string players and first performed by them, conducted by Elgar himself, in March 1905.  It followed virtually segue, with boisterous athleticism, although the ebullience was quickly subdued into tender beauty.  With the solo quartet seated and the section players standing behind, as Elgar intended, the way that the divisi ensemble pick up and expand the soloists’ utterances was emphasised, and Rattle cleanly delineated the diverse textures.  But, the architecture of this work is not only built by external dialogues across spaces.  The internal arguments are crucial too; the counterpoint is complex, ever-changing and needs to garner tremendous impetus.  Elgar himself described the fugue as a ‘devil’, but Rattle had unravelled the tapestry in his mind, discerning the logic, and with coaxing and expansive gestures made the contrapuntal lines surge lithely then ebb more loosely, the give-and-take sustained, the momentum never flagging.  With the arrival of the majestic Elgarian theme in the centre of the Allegro it was lovely to see many of the musicians relax and smile as they played: indeed, the BBC camera work was superb, taking us around and within the players, drawing back, closing in, all with naturalness and fluency.  This was an intense, committed and supremely controlled performance.  At the close, “Bravo!” mouthed Rattle to his players.  Absolutely.

György Kurtág’s four-movement ‘miniature piano concerto’, … quasi una fantasia … (1987-88), seems tailor-made for socially distanced music-making.  The orchestra, which includes recorders, mouth harmonicas and varied percussion, is intended to be divided into small groups and dispersed across the performance venue, ideally using galleries and amphitheatres.  Conventionally, the live audience would be enveloped within the sound world: Kurtág himself commented on the way that music ‘can surround whoever is listening to it with its sonorous materials’.  And, in discussion with BBC presenter, Suzi Klein, Rattle described experiencing the work as being as if “in a Transylvanian forest – one has no idea where the sounds are coming from or even which instruments are playing them.”

In fact, in the preface to … quasi una fantasia … Kurtág requests that only the piano and timpani be placed on the stage, with the percussion spread around a first balcony level, and the wind, brass and string groups in a gallery above.  Given the imagined logistical challenges on this occasion, it’s not surprising that the composer’s instructions were not followed to the letter.  But, this did not prevent the disturbing strangeness of this music from making its eerie mark.  The piano’s slow, whispered scalic descent was played with delicate precision and deliberation by Mitsuko Uchida as haunting murmurs, winds and rustlings evinced from ‘somewhere’, creating a sense of unease, even hostility.  Rattle and the LSO briskly negotiated the extreme complexities of the Presto minnacioso e lamentoso movement and subsequently there were moments of greater cohesion and consonance – including sound-pictures of exquisite musical beauty – though the sense of menace was never dispelled.

… quasi una fantasia … had its own ‘prelude’, too, in the form of the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, a work which also bears the subtitle, ‘quasi una fantasia’.  Uchida described this movement as “painful”, and in her performance every change of harmony seemed portentous, evoking so troubling and dangerous energies.  The incessant triplets were supra-humanly even, but the dotted rhythms in the bass and upper voices tugged at each other, cruel and niggling, threatening disruption and disturbance.  Far from shining sparkles of moonlight to illuminate the darkness, Uchida’s performance dwelled in the haunted shadows and was deeply unsettling.

The mood was lifted by a noble and refined rendition of Gabrieli’s Canzon noni toni a 12: light-footed independent melodising and flowing, organic development characterised this performance which in the closing bars acquired a confident golden hue as it pushed confidently towards the final cadence.  As Rattle had reminded us, in selecting his programme he wanted us to remember that that music is about joy: “you hear two minutes of Gabrieli and the world is already a better place.”  Thomas Adès’ Dawn, a work commissioned by Rattle and receiving its world premiere here, does not however depict an uplifting shift from night to day, through sunrise, with its attendant reawakening of life; instead, Adès explained, he imagined dawn as seen from the horizon, a continuous event, as the sun goes around the world.  The drooping third-based four-note chaconne on which the work is built conjures that global spinning and circling, and creates a contemplative timelessness; the orchestration is delicate, precise and redolent (Uchida played the orchestral piano part).  But, while there is a sense of rolling inevitably forward, there is no real ‘development’: the palette and canvas expand, and the dynamic and spatial magnitude grow, but the material remains essentially static, even as the work reaches towards its climactic eye- and ear-stunning sonic glare.  Suzy Klein’s judgment that Dawn is a work of “genius” is probably over-egging things, but it is evocative and soothes with its tranquillity and peace.

The concert concluded with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, which received its first performance at the Proms in 1943 during the Second World War.  Rattle explained that he selected this symphony after asking himself “what do we need to hear?” at this time.  The Symphony, he suggested, speaks of “a world that we might have lost or another world that might be there … it’s immensely sad and immensely forward-looking.”  I’m not sure if the spatial dispersal of the string players – a good complement of them, too – helped, but the Preludio seemed to have a greater transparency than is sometimes the case, which revealed the movement of the divided inner lines with gentle clarity.  In turn, this helped to create a forward-leaning pulse that gave the serene and reflective material purpose and direction without any need for overstatement or emphasis.  It also added a touch of restlessness to the radiant serenity, a hint of anxiety which seemed to me – perhaps this was imagination or preconception – to be an ever-present undercurrent.  This deep-running water came to the fore in the brass’s first, almost angry, entry against the strings’ vigorous tremolando; was suppressed, temporarily, in the glorious climaxes, overcome by the music’s own positivity; and re-emerged in the whispered interchanges of quavering fragments between woodwind, horns and strings in the fading moments of the movement.

The Scherzo was by turns perky and sinister, the hemiolas sometimes cheeky, elsewhere – with off-skew accents – menacing.  Far from being a pastoral retreat, serene and comforting, in Rattle’s hands this Symphony seemed charged with a wealth of challenging ideas, competing and brewing.  The Passacaglia was dynamic, driven by optimistic rhythms, jubilant colours, and striving bass lines.  But, it was the Romanza which was the emotional apotheosis. In this movement, Vaughan Williams drew upon material from his as then unfinished opera, Pilgrim’s Progress.  The climactic central section of the Romanza alludes to the moment in Act 1 Scene II, when Pilgrim stumbles to the Cross at the entrance to the House Beautiful: ’Save me! Save me, Lord! My burden is greater than I can bear.’  Rattle, who conducted the Symphony from memory, suggested that the movement was both a desperate appeal and an affirmative and consoling response to that prayer.

Claire Seymour

This concert is available if you click here.  All of the 2020 Proms concerts can be accessed on BBC Sounds or watched on BBC iPlayer until Monday 12 October.

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