Musical optimism from the LPO and Sir Mark Elder at the Royal Festival Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rapture and Revelry – Clyne, R. Strauss, Beethoven: Pieter Schoeman (violin), Tania Mazzetti (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London (live stream), 21.10.2020. (CS)

Sir Mark Elder (c) Simon Dodd

Anna ClynePrince of Clouds, Double Concerto for two violins and string orchestra
R. Strauss – Suite, Le bourgeois gentilhomme
Beethoven – Symphony No.8 in F major Op.93

Pearl & Dean would have been proud of the tense and taut soundtrack, complementing the steeply angled camera shots and twilight-zone lighting, that accompanied the recorded film of Sir Mark Elder’s arrival at the Southbank Centre and his sombre progress to the Royal Festival Hall.  It was an ‘edge-of-one’s-cinema-seat’ preface to the LPO’s Rapture and Revelry concert – a performance which is part of the orchestra’s year-long 2020 Vision series exploring pioneering works that have defined the sound of the 21st century, alongside music written exactly 100 and 200 years before.

Inside the RFH, striking blue beams of light streamed vertically onto the dimly lit stage.  Out of the shadows sang the tentative invitation issued by Tania Mazzetti (principal second violin of the LPO) to Peter Schoeman (the orchestra’s leader), at the start of Anna Clyne’s 2012 Double Violin Concerto, Prince of Clouds.  Their quiet, winding reflections, played with vibrato-less concentration and sweet tone, coaxed the divisi string ensemble – the players spread widely across the stage – to join them, as the melodic motifs searched for their shape, growing, reaching, supported by soft, saccharine harmonies.  Diaphanous textures coalesced in a surprising, jagged rhythmic assertion – one which emphasised open-string resonances and developed into a sort of wild hoe-down punctuated by low grumbles and stabbing chords.  Eventually all the motifs and themes declared themselves: the principal theme with its back-and-form intervallic swings; slithering descending scales in the celli that slowly stepped their way back up again; drones in the double basses supporting the soloists’ high flurries.

Clyne’s colours and textures mutate and mix ceaselessly.  At first, I struggled to hear the ‘form’, but repetitions and developments eventually cohered into recognisable pathways, restless but resolute, seeking final resolution.  Elder (replacing the LPO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Karina Canellakis – another Covid-cancellation) let Clyne’s conversations unfold naturally, without undue fussiness.  Mazzetti and Schoeman were well-matched for tone and tenor; their clean and crystalline lines did not preclude vigour and incisiveness when required.

Clyne professes to have been concerned with ‘the presence of musical lineage—a family-tree of sorts that passes from generation to generation’ when composing Prince of Clouds, which was nominated for a GRAMMY award in 2012.  Composed specifically for Jennifer Koh and her mentor at the Curtis Institute of Music, Jaime Laredo, Prince of Clouds also purports to be in conversation with the historic past – specifically J.S. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto.  I’m not sure I can hear the dialogue.  Instead, the seventeenth century – the viol consort, Purcell – as revisited by Tippett and others seems to loom larger.

Richard Strauss’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme suite also engages with the past, having begun its life as incidental music that Strauss composed for his Hoffmansthal-collaboration, Der Bürger als Edelmann, which brought together a farce by Molière, the commedia dell’arte and a one-act opera Ariadne auf Naxos.  The intrepid duo bit off more than they could chew!  The opera was subsequently given a life of its own, in the two-act form with which we are familiar; the Baroque-inspired incidental music was garnered into a suite for chamber orchestra of double woodwind, two horns, trumpet and trombone, timpani and percussion, harp and piano, and sixteen strings.

Sir Mark Elder had a smile on his face from first to last – and, that’s how it should be!  This music needs a conductor who ‘gets’ the humour, lightness, tongue-in-cheek archaisms.  The Overture was brisk and busy, dry and crisp, into which a dose of the bourgeois Monsieur Jourdain’s pomposity and brass-heavy self-regard intruded, was indulged, but not allowed to linger over-long, and gave way to beautifully tender woodwind.  Here and throughout, Elder made trifles sound like treasures.

It was a delight to hear the musicians of the LPO play as soloists: grace and pertness from flautist Juliette Bausor in the Minuet; a brassy swagger from horn and trumpet in ‘The Fencing Master’, with pianist Catherine Edwards flouncing with virtuosic flourishes; a forthright discussion between bolshy trombones, lithe clarinet and Schoeman’s double-stopped – perfectly tuned and incisive – dance for the ‘Master Tailor’.  Tempos swirled along and segued beguilingly.

Lully composed dance music for the ballet that was incorporated into Moliere’s play, which first performed before Louis XIV in 1670, and here the Lully-esque Minuet satisfyingly balanced sentimentality with the upstart protagonist’s conceited self-regard; there was no hint of, or need for, neo-Baroque ‘authenticity’ – this was Strauss basking in his own ability to create music of great beauty.  The clean textures of the Courant charmed, and Elder sustained the lightness and delicacy.  The muted strings introduced a touch of Romantic yearning and melodic elegance in the ‘Entry of Cléonte’, only for the woodwind to steal in and posture and pose with regal command and flair.

The ‘Intermezzo’, which introduces the aristocratic Graf Dorantes and Marquise Dorimene, was deliciously whimsical, and then Monsieur Jourdain hosted his ‘grand dinner’ – which really is a smorgasbord of musical morsels (Wagner, Strauss, Verdi et al).  The conductor-cook stirred up some robust and palette-tingling flavours.  The music shimmied and sashayed, fuelled by harp surges, punchy pizzicato, piquant harmonies, a lovely cello solo from Kristina Blaumane and pert woodwind.  The concluding Viennese waltz frothed its way to the finish line.  It felt as if Strauss, and Elder, could go on spinning the domestic drama endlessly – and I mean that in the best possible way.  Good fun was had by all: and, heaven knows, we all need something to smile about at present.

My memory of the first time I played Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony has dug itself into a rut in my musical consciousness.  The final pages of the last movement seemed a mad blare of F major, played hell-for-leather, exuberant and exhausting in equal measure.  I remember my sixteen-year-old self wondering in bewilderment, “What on earth did Beethoven think he was doing?”  It’s taken me a long time to learn to ‘love’ this symphony – and I’m not sure I’m quite there yet!  But, with the RFH stage now flooded with a purple and aquamarine glow, Elder’s affection for the music did much to persuade.  He let the bombast have its say.  But, the gentler ripostes were just as forthright in their own way.  Above all, one felt the optimism of Beethoven’s score.  If the music asked questions, then it also had all the answers; it turned the corners with confidence and refused to be daunted.  In the Allegro vivace e con brio, the harmonic shadows of the development section were allowed to register their disquiet, and work out their arguments in virile counterpoint and strikingly forceful harmonic conflicts, but there was never any doubt that the sun would shine again and unite all.

The Allegretto scherzando seemed a bit too ‘forthright’ – I’d have liked some cheekier pianissimos – but it’s hard to tell what it would have sounded like had I been in the Festival Hall instead of relying on headphones, engineers and cables.  The LPO musicians were certainly precise and the ensemble impressive.  The Minuet stamped its foot, loudly and determinedly, and though in the Trio the singing horns and triplet-dancing celli tried to re-establish some graciousness, the exuberance of the whole could not be diminished.  The finale was fast and furious, but the LPO players were a portrait of calm – I guess that’s what Beethoven asks and demands: take it all in your stride.  Perhaps that’s a lesson to be learnt.

Claire Seymour

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