Kožená, the LSO and Rattle show how the coupling of Adámek and Beethoven worked remarkably well

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ondřej Adámek, Beethoven: Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 17.9.2021. (CC)

Magdalena Kožená sings Where Are You? (c) Mark Allan

Ondřej AdámekWhere Are You? (UK premiere)

Beethoven – Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68, ‘Pastoral’

It was so nice to see such a large audience – not only per se, but there to hear Ondřej Adámek’s piece for Magdalena Kožená, Where Are You?, a commission supported by the Ernst von Siemen Music Foundation and composed for Bayerischer Rundfunk’s Musica Viva and the London Symphony Orchestra. The piece was premiered in March in Munich (Sir Simon Rattle is to take over the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2023, succeeding the late Mariss Jansons) and this is one of a series of performances Kožená, the LSO and Rattle are touring (they performed the piece in Berlin and Lucerne on 7 and 8 September).

Born in 1979 in Prague, Adámek has an interest in special/extended playing techniques and offers a notably wide, imaginative soundworld. The eleven settings that comprise Adámek’s song-cycle take in texts in English, Czech (including Moravian dialect), Aramaic and Spanish that meditate on God, his existence and the meaning of the concept of deity. Adámek also questions roles:  Kožená has to sing through a loudhailer at one point (which seemed not to function too well on this occasion sadly), and she seems to direct the work’s close. The percussion section (three percussionists) is certainly kept busy in this unashamedly modernist work. Yet Adámek’s modernism is pluralistic: we also hear a flowering of East European folksong, for example. At half an hour-plus duration, it is quite the marathon for all concerned, not least Kožená, who absolutely triumphed in this performance. The piece begins more with theatre than music: the soloist moves her hands outwards then inwards, as if replicating the sound of a breath in movement, and surely enough the breath sounds increase (as a flute’s breathy playing echoes her gesture). The first song, which begins in Aramaic before moving to Czech, is called ‘Slotha – setting a trap for the Divine’ and sets words that translate the opening of the Lord’s Prayer (traditionally ‘Our Father’, or ‘Otče náš’ in Czech). From silence through to almost jazzy dissonances, Adámek’s world is a fascinating labyrinth that invites investigation.

The segmentation of words into syllabic sounds is a vital part of Adámek’s vocabulary as Kožená navigates a whole gamut of vocal techniques, from an astonishing low register through to full-voiced outpourings (as in the fifth movement, ‘Saeta: semana santa’, a traditional Easter chant from Seville), or in the tenth, ‘Gentle Whisper’ (inspired by 1 Kings 12:11). There is a certain wit to some of Adámek’s writing, including the use of dance rhythms, and when in the seventh movement (‘Ecstasy’, from the life of Teresa of Avila) the text moves towards the angelic realm, Adámek lightens the music beautifully. The piece ends with a movement in Sanskrit, ‘Everywhere’, from the Bhagavad Gita (‘For those who see me everywhere… I am never lost. …’), and the music returns to where it started, Kožená now turning her back to the audience, almost conducting the breathing herself.

The enthusiastic reception to Adámek’s piece was most welcome: challenging music that enriches, music that gives back as much as the listener puts in.

The LSO conducted by Sir Simon Rattle (c) Mark Allan

No interval in this 7pm start concert – a little stage management and then on to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony in a performance that had power and yet was blessed with a magnificent translucency. This might have been performed with a modern symphony orchestra, but the spirit of historically informed performance hovered in the myriad details. Rattle painted the pastoral scenes in sound, glorious piping woodwind, the whole grounded by five double basses. The confluence of a big sound with this transparency was nothing short of revelatory. No surprise that the second movement (the ‘Scene by the brook’) flowed nicely: and how fresh the bird ‘imitations’ sounded! The final three movements, attacca, acted as a single narrative tone-poem, the ‘Merry gathering’ fast and light, the storm properly punchy, a depiction of elemental weather not far removed from Liszt’s piano ‘Orage’ (from the Années de pélerinage). And from that, how soothing was the final ‘Shepherds’ song’, radiant and glowing.

The coupling of Adámek and Beethoven worked remarkably well: we hear Beethoven (himself a reminder of what we missed in Beethoven Year) as a breath of fresh air after the complexities of the Adámek. Fabulous programming, and wonderful to hear the LSO on such world-beating form. It all bodes well for Sunday’s exploration of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony.

Colin Clarke

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