Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra review – Barbara Hannigan leads a bold season opener

14 September 2023

The LSO is on top form as they explore a mix of challenging and familiar works to open their 2023/24 season at the Barbican.

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre (Photo: Max Colson)

It’s hard to imagine a more audacious programme than this season opener devised by the Canadian soprano/conductor Barbara Hannigan. The LSO’s recently departed music director, Simon Rattle, was renowned for programming eclectic concerts, but I can’t remember anything as challenging as this – an evening of Ligeti, Vivier, Haydn, Nono and Strauss.

“There is a real sense of dark and light in this programme,” Hannigan writes. “The concert could be summed up by the title of the piece by Claude Vivier: Where are you, Light!. It’s a searching programme. It’s searching for light, it’s about understanding the repercussions of the lives that we have lived.”

The evening began with a mesmerising performance of Liget’s Ramifications – a nine minute piece written for a string ensemble of twelve solo players, split into two opposing sections, and tuned a quarter-tone apart. The work may seem simple on the surface, a repetitive hum that’s redolent of a swarm of insects, yet it’s densely constructed, with each musical line having its own story to tell as it shimmers and rises and falls like an ocean wave obliterated through a haze of sunshine. Hannigan was a galvanising presence on the platform, teasing and coaxing the players to give their all.

The next piece, Wo bist du Licht! by Claude Vivier was a revelation. Murdered at the tragically young age of 35, one can only imagine how this distinctive musical voice would have developed, if his life hadn’t been cut short so early. A multi-layered work that makes huge demands of the singer, here the indefatigable mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, and the players, Vivier taps a wide range of musical influences, including Gamelan, yet sounds utterly original.

“…I can’t remember anything as challenging as this…”

Scored for 20 string soloists who provide what can be best described as white noise, in addition to three percussionists, and pre-recorded tape – most notably of Martin Luther King’s ‘Let freedom ring’ speech – Vivier creates an alluring 20 minute work that has an hypnotic effect on its listeners. Yes, it’s sombre and dark but is mesmeric too. Barron brought sonorous tones to the oft-repeated phrase,’ Wo bist du licht,’ impressed with the Sprechstimme and seemed totally unfazed by the vocalising and acrobatic musical somersault that were required of her. This was an astonishingly assured performance of a complex work, all ably supported on the podium by Hannigan’s crystal clear conducting.

After that, Haydn’s dark symphony, No 26 ‘Lamentatione’ almost came as light relief. One of his early Sturm und Drang symphonies, it contains many abrupt changes of character which Hannigan and her players caught to perfection. Nicely articulated phrasing, combined with scrupulous attention to dynamics, ensured this was a performance to savour. Leader Benjamin Gilmore’s solo contributions in the second movement Adagio were beautifully etched and gloriously played.

The second half got off to a spine-tingling start as Hannigan, bathed in a spotlight, gave a faultless performance of Nono’s Djamila Boupacha – an unaccompanied, fiendishly difficult five minute soprano monologue. Hannigan has few if any revivals in this kind of exacting repertoire. Not only did she navigate Nono’s precarious intervals with consummate ease, she filled this homage to the Algerian freedom fighter with an unbridled sense of passion. 

Then, whilst holding the final pianissimo note for what seemed an eternity, she faced towards the orchestra, and with a barely perceptible upbeat launched into Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration). Pure magic. And this proved to be an engrossing and superbly played performance, all sections of the LSO on the platform for the first time in the evening. Hannigan inspired the orchestra to give its all, and although the brass were occasionally too strident, her vision of the work was evident in every bar, and her masterly control of the ebb and flow of the piece never faltered.

This fascinating concert has certainly set the bar high for the LSO’s new season, and given how challenging the repertoire was, it was encouraging and heartwarming to see the Barbican packed to the rafters.

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