Superbly constructed and performed programme from François-Xavier Roth and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Järventausta, R. Strauss, Grime, Coll: Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 3.4.2022. (MB)

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), François-Xavier Roth (conductor) and LSO © Mark Allan

Joel Järventausta – Sunfall (world premiere)
R. Strauss – Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28; Tod und Verklärung, Op.24
Helen Grime – Trumpet Concerto (world premiere)
Francisco Coll – Violin Concerto (UK premiere)

Three premieres, two of them world premieres, and a couple of Richard Strauss tone poems. Add concerto soloists of the calibre of Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Håkan Hardenberger to the formidable team of the London Symphony Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth, and what is not to like? Nothing here, I think. Joel Järventausta’s Sunfall, apparently rooted in the composer’s synaesthetic response to the colour orange, made for an impressive opening piece, subdued first chords swiftly, rudely interrupted by a cataclysmic orchestral clap. That and other such contrasts in material were worked out in an atmosphere of unease and natural-world majesty. A keen ear for matching timbre and harmony, and for lone, fragile melodic against that atmospheric backdrop imparted a sense of the ultimate amorality of the sun and its light: it can give life, but it can also take it away. Increasing animation, even frenzy, returned us to a transformed wilderness. Chatter at its close — musical, yet speech — enhanced the enigma, but also the unapproachability of that giant fireball now departed.

I do not think it would do Sunfall any disservice to call it a contemporary tone poem. At any rate, it was followed by the first of two supreme masterpieces of the genre. Till Eulenspiegel emerged in Roth and the LSO’s capable hands flexible, colourful, and wry as ever. It shared with its predecessor a clear sense of narrative, full of incident and clear of structure, though it was certainly not to be reduced to its programme. There was an idiomatic swing where called for, not so very far from Strauss’s waltz-king namesake. Throughout, Roth showed that, like the best Strauss conductors, he could ‘play’ the orchestra with ease.

Helen Grime’s new Trumpet Concerto opened darkly, yet with a host of orchestral colours, harmonic and timbral, not entirely un-Bergian. From that, the trumpet emerged magically, before sinking once more into an orchestral cauldron that was itself home both to echoes and pre-echoes of Hardenberger’s wondrously spun solo thread. Motivic threads were knit tightly together in a way I am tempted to call Classical, though I do not wish to imply something backward-looking. And in truth, the method probably had little to do with such distant forebears, though the movement of particular lines more than once recalled to me the late music of Boulez. Fantastic descending orchestral spirals, scurrying, and more would surely have interested, even delighted, him. Hardenberger’s lightly worn virtuosity became all the more apparent, incited by magnificently idiomatic writing for the instrument. There was, moreover an ebbing and flowing melancholy to the trumpet, not remotely sentimental, but which rather seemed to bear witness, perhaps even to the troubled time in which it was written (and first performed).

The opening éclat of Francisco Coll’s Violin Concerto, more angular rhythmically, heralded a kinship that may only have been of chance, but which in context spoke of twin conceptions of instrumental and orchestral fantasy, replete in this case with punctuating percussion. At any rate, we heard the music of two composers by now fully mature, even contemporary masters. (For me, it has been quite a thing to acquaint myself with their musical journeys over the past decade or so.) Kopatchinskaja’s explosive, full-blown virtuosity led the way towards a lyrical blooming that was not so much ‘traditional’, whatever that may mean, as intriguingly and, yes, movingly haunted by some of tradition’s ghosts. The first movement (‘Atomised’) close, with high-lying, silvery orchestral violins heightened a kinship I had already felt with Prokofiev: not ‘influence’, nor a model, but perhaps simply a sense that the two composers, mediated by Kopatchinskaja, might have something to say to one another.

There was certainly a sense of magic, drawing one in, to the second movement ‘Hyperhymnia’ and its lyricism, both uneasy and (almost) easy, harmonic development propelling its motion. Indeed, the expressive nature of Coll’s harmonic language, never to be reduced to that of anything or anyone else, proved at times quite breathtaking. A section of almost neo-Mahlerian climaxes, not in language, but in preparation and spacing, led to a true cadenza of true, musical virtuosity, which in turn led us into a finale (‘Phase’) of great invention (for instance, a passage setting violin against double basses) and intensity. Passages of (relative) stasis and movement, of shifting colours, transformational rhythms, and ghosts in the machine, seemed as inspired by Kopatchinskaja’s playing as she by Coll’s writing.

Both concertos, indeed all the works so far heard, had been journeys of transformation. So too, of course, was Tod und Verklärung. Its ominous opening heart-beats, vividly pictorial and crucial to subsequent, motivic development, heightened rather than dignified the magic of life (and beyond). There was high-operatic drama, presented with polish, precision, and grand sweep. There were light and shade, including colours I had never fancied were there. There was harmonic richness too, all revealed in a full-bodied orchestral performance, with none of the thinness one sometimes hears in this work. The glow of final transfiguration was echt-Straussian and intensely moving.

Mark Berry

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