The LSO on electrifying form for Stockhammer in Adams, Debussy, and Ravel

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adams, Debussy, Ravel: London Symphony Orchestra / Jonathan Stockhammer (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 20.4.2023. (CK)

Jonathan Stockhammer © Rüdiger Böhme

John Adams – Harmonielehre
Debussy – La Mer
Ravel – Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No.2

Sir Simon Rattle’s indisposition (he is recovering from Covid) notwithstanding, the Barbican Hall was packed for this programme of sustained orchestral brilliance. Jonathan Stockhammer – an American working in Germany, with a proven track record in complex contemporary music – seized his chance to shine, but it was the electrifying form of the London Symphony Orchestra that quickly disposed of any sense of disappointment that their Maestro was absent.

In his Harmonielehre, John Adams took the Austro-German symphony out of its faded lederhosen and put it into Bermuda shorts. In his book The Rest is Noise Alex Ross describes how Adams took the title from the famous textbook in which Schoenberg first declared that tonality was dead: ‘Adams’ Harmonielehre says, in essence, “Like hell it is’’.’

It is a piece that excites before a note is played. What catches the eye is the arc of tuned percussion stretching right around the back of the platform, from timpani to ‘phones, ‘spiels, bells and gongs to piano, celeste and harps. The LSO were on it from the get-go. As with Wagner and Das Rheingold the opening came to Adams after a dream – a giant supertanker in the San Francisco Bay Area shooting into the sky. It is as powerful as Coleridge’s vision in Kubla Khan (though probably not, I hasten to add, similarly induced). Those explosive chords – like an industrial version of the start of Nielsen 3 – signal the start of a white-knuckle ride for orchestra and audience; more than that, they enact the breaking of a barrier, propelling Adams out of a prolonged barren period and allowing the tide of inspiration to come rushing back in.

Or so it seemed in this performance. The energy was there, but so too was the expressiveness and the detail: the playing had an extraordinarily clean, gleaming, pristine quality, so that every fleck of sound told. When the cellos launched the wonderfully questing theme that follows the slam-bang opening, their sound was as gorgeous as anything in the Ravel at the other end of the concert. I don’t think I have ever heard the central movement performed with such intensity and eloquence; the finale provides extraordinary beauty and wild excitement, but the catharsis came here, as it should. Adams calls it The Anfortas Wound. The spelling is important: this is not Wagner’s Christianised Amfortas, with a spear-wound in his side; in the original French version of the legend the wound is in his testicles, and so becomes a metaphor for loss of creativity (a loss which Adams had been feeling keenly for some time). Here, too, we are most conscious of Harmonielehre as meta-symphony, gathering in and subsuming the music of the past: Sibelius and Mahler most clearly, but also Stravinsky in the woodwind writing near the movement’s beginning; and the lone trumpet (James Fountain) sharpening the sound to an edge of pain as it does in the Prelude to Parsifal.

As should be clear by now, I love this piece (not everybody does) and I loved this performance. I came out into the foyer with a strong desire to accost complete strangers and say, ‘It’s a helluva piece, isn’t it?’ It yielded nothing to Adams’s own performance at the Barbican with the LSO 20 years ago, in its brilliance, its emotional clout and its sense of epiphany. It seems to me to be a landmark in the orchestral music of the second half of the twentieth century (others? Maxwell Davies’s Worldes Blis, Henze’s Seventh Symphony, Magnus Lindberg’s Aura...).

It seems wrong to treat Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s 2nd Suite from Daphnis and Chloe as footnotes to Adams. I can understand the reasons for reserving the second half of the concert for French composers of uncontested greatness: but having had the top of one’s head blown off before the interval it is hard to do them proper justice. La Mer was given a scintillating, spumy performance, a continual feast for the ear; in Daphnis and Chloe the day broke ravishingly as nine percussionists waited patiently for the Danse Generale, but it was the antics of Gareth Davies in Pantomime that most caught the ear, conjuring sensuous, almost liquid sounds from his flute, characterfully supported by the rest of his section on flute, alto flute, and piccolo.

And Jonathan Stockhammer? He did a good job at short notice. But we all wish Sir Simon a swift and full recovery – especially, perhaps, those of us hoping to hear him conduct Mahler and Poulenc on Sunday 23 April.

Chris Kettle

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