Highly memorable LPO concert with the Brett Dean Viola Concerto lingering in the memory

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nielsen, Brett Dean, Mahler: Lawrence Power (viola), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Hannu Lintu (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 9.2.2022. (CC)

Lawrence Power (c) Jack Liebeck

Nielsen – Helios Overture

Brett Dean – Viola Concerto

Mahler – Symphony No.1

Nice to have an Overture-Concerto-Symphony meat-and-two-veg concert. Despite the format, in fact, there was nothing run-of-the-mill about this concert, not least because the central concerto was a major contribution to the contemporary viola repertoire

Nielsen’s Helios Overture is a mini-masterpiece. No missing the Das Rheingold opening, string depths growing organically into horn lines – calls to dawn if not upward arpeggiations of the Rhine, but the link is unmistakable, especially as upper string lines lowly uncurl and movement stretches itself into existence. And that oboe theme that follows is pure genius. Inspired by a trip to sun-drenched Athens, and at the beginning of a meditation on sun energy that culminates in the Third Symphony. There was no doubting how much the London Philharmonic Orchestra liked the experienced conductor Hannu Lintu – bright brass, fugal writing vigorous and strong. I understand the piece is hugely popular on Danish Radio and it is easy to hear why: its fervent optimism is infectious.

The LPO’s Composer-in-Residence is Brett Dean, and his Viola Concerto celebrates the instrument. Dean is a violist himself, and the act of writing, he says, offered him the opportunity to examine his ‘relationship with this curiously beautiful, somewhat enigmatic instrument’. The objective title of ‘Viola Concerto’ tells us little, but there are three movement headings. The first (‘Fragment’) is a short placement of serenity filled with beautiful sounds. There is something of the presentation of material here that will be utilised later, but hearing Lawrence Power’s hypnotic, high sound took us on a journey within itself. By contrast, the second movement (‘Pursuit’) is a high-energy, angular chase. The age-old concerto dynamic of solo taking a heroic stance against tutti has its place here, the only place of solace being a solo cadenza. Power’s playing was mesmeric here, the idea of the viola, a quiet instrument generally, against full orchestra results in a sort of subconscious cheering for the underdog. A special shoutout, though, for the LPO’s trombones, muted, articulating at some considerable speed!

The composer himself refers to the finale, marked ‘Veiled and Mysterious’, as a Klagelied – a song of sorrow. The scoring is notable, a viola song over solo cellos and bowed percussion. I do believe I heard clarinet multiphonics, beautifully controlled, as part of Dean’s expressive vocabulary, while the cor anglais of Peter Facer sang its own sorrowful song. Another surprising aspect of Dean’s vocabulary was the arrival of a sudden moment that seemed to glance towards Romanticism. This is a fascinating piece, filled with imagination: Dean’s writing is consistently and brilliantly inspired (especially the use of solo trombone within a cadenza). Power is clearly at home in this piece and Lintu is a fine conductor of contemporary music, very crystal clear in his direction. Dean has of course recorded this piece himself (with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on BIS).

Finally, a Mahler 1 with the odd surprise. There was a long pause between the second and third movements as a string player went off to change a string – Lintu pointed out that Mahler’s score does indeed cause for a pause, but perhaps not that long.

More notable was the performance itself, one that was incredibly attentive to detail – the woodwind placing of entries of the all-important descending perfect fourth at the opening, the perfectly placed off-stage instruments, the woodwind lines we often just do not hear. And a brass section on fire, be it in the soft horn entrance at the opening or the final peroration (standing as requested by the composer). Tempo changes were achieved with perfect understanding of underlying pulse. How beautifully Lintu traced the music’s contours; how impeccably dance-like was the second movement. Perhaps not the Austrian Ländler that Bruno Walter could bring about, but here undercut with a thread of menace that found its polar opposite in the utterly charming Trio.

After that enforced break, how Lintu created a web of sound in the overlapping entries of the famous theme of the third movement, tremendous clarity to the Klezmer material, too. An advantage of Lintu’s structural overview was that the finale had no ‘sag’ to it – a feature of most performances of this movement. And lest I imply this was a performance of great clarity and no power, the finale’s opening was visceral in extremis. Mahler once said, ‘A symphony must be like the world’; Lintu persuaded us that this movement alone was like the world, so varied was the landscape, how softly caressed were the more tender moments, how overpowering the brass-drenched final pages.

A highly memorable concert. Ultimately, it is the Brett Dean that lingers in the memory, but how wonderful to have such a strong reminder if the stature of Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture.

Colin Clarke

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