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Where sounds do not fear to tread

Three evenings with Simon Rattle and LSO (Barbican, 11th, 13th and 14th January 2018)

London audiences had a luxury to attend three evenings of Sir Simon Rattle conducting London Symphony Orchestra, with each of the programs presenting an elaborate choice of works specifically chosen by the conductor. Rattle's design was to create an intellectually and emotionally inspiring message for audiences which had both political and social connotations. It started with 11th January 2018 where Rattle united with his wife, a mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, to present a mix of vocal and instrumental pieces combining Romantic and Barocco pieces. It is interesting how Rattle bravely treats the unfinished Schubert’s Symphony No 8, although the piece does not have a finishing point and just ends without a warning and vanishes in the air, as a true romantic piece that is always a part of an unfinished whole, should. Rattle conducted the symphony with such tenderness as though it was a new born child, and gave it a direction of thought and emotion that promised a future, so one felt that a piece might have an ending somewhere but we just could not hear it.

Then Kožená sang haunting Rückert Lieder by Gustav Mahler which, similarly to Schubert’s Symphony, drifted somewhere in the world between life and death, start and finish, loneliness and belonging. ‘Um Mitternacht’ (At Midnight Hour) and ‘Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen’ (O Garish World, Long Since Thou Hast Lost Me) were like tears shed from the sky or songs heard at the dawn or during the night, with the listener not knowing where exactly to place the soul that sang them. Madgalena Kožená masterfully assumed the philosophical stance of aloofness in her posture and singing, as though observing herself at the same time as delivering her vocal part.

With this in mind, even more sudden and unexpected was her change (both of costume and the delivery) in the second half of the concert when she sang emotional arias from Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ and ‘Ariodante’. In fact, the whole second half of the concert moved within the world of theatrical performance, as though in the anticipation of the concert on Saturday 13th January. ‘Pensieri, Voi Mi Tormentate’ from ‘Agrippina’ could be a catch phrase describing our usual mental state nowadays, and Magdalena Kožená repeated these words through the aria assuming a new tone, a new colour, a new development each time. The same virtuosity of delivery was shown in two next arias, ‘Scherza Infida’ and ‘Dopo Notte’ from ‘Ariodante’, the work which is based on Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’. Kožená powerfully showed two emotional states from this opera – one of distress of being betrayed, continuously repeating that ‘infida’ (faithless) with all possible intonations of fury, anger and helplessness drawn from the singer’s palette, and another of a happy resolution ‘dopo notte’ (after a dark night). The concert finished with instrumental suite from Rameau’s tragedie lyrique ‘Les Boréades’, and brought us to Versaille of Lully and Molière, with the wind (hence the name of the suite) always ‘blowing’ playfully among the instrumental parts and even causing Sir Simon Rattle to stop the performance and explain to us why the orchestral delivery was so ruptured so that we would not think his orchestra got lost in Rameau’s notes. The established combination of several arts – danse, opera, poetry, art, theatre and music – was exactly the one that was needed for the evening on Saturday, where such combination was delivered again, but this time through the expression tools of the 21st century.

For the Saturday evening the composer Gerard McBurney and Simon Rattle prepared a unique program that gave us an opportunity to hear a work that has never been performed in the UK before. They also created a synthetic experience where a video installation, actor’s voices and music were combined to convey a special message about modern times through the lense of 20th century history. Rattle actually explained that we should imagine listening to the post-war radio with our families: together, leaning on the tables, ready to let our fantasies be led by sounds and words coming from a small station. The project presented by Rattle and McBurney initially was a collaborative event started by the composer Nathaniel Shilkret and created as a contemplation of the Second World War and an attempt to form a vision of the world after it. Shilkret and six other composers (Ernst Toch, Darius Milhaud, Alexandre Tasman, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky), all immigrants to America, had contributed a piece, forming a Genesis suite consisting of The Prelude (by Shoenberg), The Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, The Flood, The Rainbow and The Babel (by Stravinsky). It was intended to bring together the composers (Schoenberg and Stravinsky famously did not speak to each other) as much as the public together in face of the necessity to think over what happened to the civilized world and to ask whether civilization still exists or should be built again from scratch.

The sheer act of presenting it to Barbican audiences today also has a special message of linking that period with our own times, and Gerard McBurney united forces with the projection designer Mike Tutaj and searched, on one hand, for images and pictures that were created in 1943-45 (including concentration camps and war footage), and, on the other hand, for contemporary images of important historical events, mainly linked to peace treaties and reconciliation. Actors Simon Callow, Helen McCrory, Sara Kestelman and Rodney Earl Clarke were positioned on either side of the stage and narrated us the Genesis story as seven orchestral pieces and the video projection unfolded. So the public’s emotional response was to music, videos and readings all at once, a task which sometimes required a lot of concentration, as the musical pieces were quite eclectic, although Rattle evidently strived to give them unity. The images of nature that were also part of the projection made one contemplate about the looming necessity to re-create the world again in case the ecological catastrophe happens (incidentally, John Akomfrah’s installation ‘Purple’ contemplating on the same theme has just finished at The Barbican). The evening indeed united the audiences and general efferverscence could be felt in the interval and after the concert, as people were approaching actors Damiel Lewis, Simon Russell Beale and directors Nick Hytner and Simon McBurney who were in the audience that night. Gerard McBurney also kindly spoke to members of the public, giving his personal insights and comments on the evening’s project.

The last evening of Rattle/LSO program was no less intriguing: it featured the last works of four composers: the overture Janáček’s ‘From the House of the Dead’ (1927-28), Elliott Carter’s ‘Instances’ (2012) written when the composer was 103, and still having an incredibly lucid feel about them), Berg’s Violin Concerto dedicted to Alma Mahler’s daughter who died being only 18 years old and an incredibly poweful and lyrical Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra which was also performed by Rattle and LSO the night before. Isabelle Faust performed Berg’s haunting concerto in an extremely moving fashion, exploring grief and melancholy with the notes of violin in emotional corners rarely heard in classical repertoire. As the composer indicated, the work was written ‘to the memory of an angel’, and indeed the violin entered the world that angels fear to tread. But it was Bartók’s Concerto, which has so many folk motives inside and which urges the orchestra to perform as a one person, that helped the audiences to find the same feeling of unity and togetherness that was characteristic of the previous evening. These three evenings, when heard together, left a huge moral impact, allowing us to see how music can indeed serve political and social purpose.

Genesis Suite, photo credits: Marc Allan/Barbican/LSO

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