LSO/Rattle, Barbican: ★★★★★
Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra have been marking the Beethoven 250 year so far by juxtaposing the great composer’s music with that of Alban Berg. Two radicals working in Vienna a century apart, they have plenty to unite them, though obviously not the subjects or contrasting moralities of their works paired here: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its Ode to Joy celebrating universal brotherhood, and Berg’s Lulu Suite, drawn from an opera that traces a woman’s descent towards her grisly death at the hands of Jack the Ripper on the streets of London.
Berg’s five-movement Suite is built around Lulu’s Lied – an ode to sexual freedom – but by far the longest section is the opening, which starts from music of beautiful dreaminess. On Sunday evening, Rattle not only felt it but communicated it to the orchestra and audience, resulting in a performance of flowing warmth. Orchestral virtuosity in the more mechanistic second movement made its mark too, but the apotheosis was reached in Iwona Sobotka’s singing of that central Lied; with a strong, glowing upper register, the Polish soprano encapsulated the soundworld of Berg’s anti-heroine.
Sobotka returned at the end of the evening for Schiller’s finale in the Beethoven, at the head of a quartet of soloists also comprising Anna Stéphany, Robert Murray and Florian Boesch. They were excellent, if ultimately overshadowed by the London Symphony Chorus, drilled by Simon Halsey to a level of overwhelming brilliance – singing without scores and with eyes fixed either on Rattle or the auditorium, they attacked the choral parts with unanimity when it came to accents and sang with stirring joy and power.
But this was a performance full of drama from the start. The first movement erupted quickly into an intense struggle, full of Beethovenian striving – informed perhaps by his experience with period orchestras, Rattle drew gritty playing while also allowing the musicians plenty of freedom. Beethoven’s late masterpiece has many layers of meaning, but one of its meanings was the elephant in this filled-to-capacity room, and you could have heard a pin drop during the quiet first statement of the famous tune.
At at time when the country’s musical life is threatened by likely funding cuts and inevitable restriction of freedom of movement, it was clear that Rattle was intent on delivering a manifesto in the form of his best-ever performance of the Ninth. In spite — of perhaps because — of this, the playful vehemence of the Scherzo and hymn-like spirituality in the Adagio sounded all the more like pure Beethoven, making this a concert of gripping intensity. JA
The LSO’s season continues: lso.co.uk
Igor Levit, Barbican ★★★★★
Young German pianist Igor Levit is like those mountaineers who take on impossible vertical inclines with no ropes. Only music which reaches up to the heights and taxes him to the limit will do. On Thursday night, for the second concert in his Barbican residency Levit was joined by a few musical colleagues to play two immense modern works which have that quality, but in every other respect are poles apart.
The first of them, Olivier Messiaen’s vast two-piano Visions de L’Amen, is a giant procession of surreal Christian/cosmic icons in sound that sends some into raptures and makes others’ toes curl. There are apocalyptic moments that sound as if the planet and stars are ringing like bells, and others where sugary common chords evoke an end-of-the-pier Wurlitzer organist. Fortunately, this performance was so enraptured and intense that even those potentially tacky moments seemed sublime.
Levit was joined by German pianist Markus Hinterhāuser, who compared to Levit’s nervy intensity was the rock-like Unmoved Mover, supplying the granitic chorales and Leviathan basses. Against these Levit’s tender tinkling sounds and sudden tumbling descents were like flocks of birds, or showers of stars. In the final few pages, taken at a daringly fast pace, they built a towering sound which seemed to swell beyond what four hands at two pianos could possibly produce.
For Shostakovich’s final, 15th Symphony, Levit had to find a completely different sound: spare, gaunt, but occasionally tragic or touched with humour. He performed what was originally an orchestral piece in a reduced version for seven players that was sanctioned by the composer, but which – as you looked at the stage beforehand – felt deeply implausible. How could Levit and violinist Ning Feng and cellist Julia Hagen possibly hold their own against those four percussionists and their impressive battery of vibraphone, xylophone, drums and tam-tam?
I needn’t have worried. Feng and Hagen made Shostakovich’s spikily sarcastic melodies and unexpected chirpy quotations from Rossini so vivid that they absolutely held the stage, even with side-drum and skeletal wood-block and startlingly thunderous kettle-drum ranged against them. At the centre was Levit, holding this ragged fabric together with impeccable artistry. In those quiet moments when the symphony’s sarcastic mask drops away he found a vast yet small sound, like the echo of a tragedy happening beyond the horizon. Levit has many gifts, but his perfect tact and sensitivity when playing with other musicians may be the greatest of them. IH
Igor Levit’s next concert on his Barbican residency is on Feb 19, with music by Beethoven, Bartók and Brahms. Tickets: 020 7638 8891; barbican.org.uk
Classical, OAE/Fischer, The Anvil, Basingstoke ★★★☆☆
Much about Mozart’s final trilogy of symphonies remains shrouded in mystery, but we do know that they were composed in a concentrated, six-week burst of creativity in summer 1788. Although he could not have known these that these sublime masterpieces would be his farewell to symphonic form, the coda to the last of them, the “Jupiter”, does have a feeling of last words, its counterpoint functioning a little like the fugue in Verdi’s operatic swansong, Falstaff.
Conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Iván Fischer had a point, then, when he invited the audience to think of these symphonies not as three works of four movements each, but as one canvas divided into 12 movements. Putting the evening’s interval in the middle of the Symphony No. 40 in G minor might almost have worked, but only if Fischer hadn’t diluted musical tension by encouraging the audience also to applaud each of the twelve movements separately. How many times in one evening should a conductor turn around to grin at the listeners?
The concert started well with the Symphony No 39 in E flat major, the least often heard of the three. Sharing a warmth with other Mozart works in the same key, and its richness enhanced by prominent clarinets, it swept along spaciously. The OAE’s natural horns and trumpets had bite, and in the excellent acoustics of The Anvil in Basingstoke just three double basses underpinned everything with a firmly present bass line.
Although a readiness to experiment with traditional concert formats is always to be welcomed, Fischer’s maverick tendencies quickly got the better of him. The energy one might have anticipated from this combination of conductor and orchestra was dissipated by the bitty presentation, and by the time they reached the famous opening of the G minor work there was just not enough turbulence, too little Strum und Drang. No one seemed to feel the palpitating operatic urgency of the motto rhythm, echoing Cherubino’s “Non so più” in Figaro.
Quirky turned casual, too, in parts of the great Symphony No. 41 in C, where the opening movement felt a little perfunctory. The grandly arresting opening gesture sounded lightweight, and the period instruments themselves (sometimes wonderfully transparent) were not to blame; the OAE has often brought more blaze to this work. But the performance perked up in the tumultuous yet sunny finale, proving again that nothing can keep the “Jupiter” from triumphing. JA
This programme is repeated at the Royal Festival Hall on February 7. More OAE concerts: oae.co.uk