Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra @ Barbican Hall, London

8 November 2007

String-snapping, headache-inducing John Adams rocks the Barbican in this concert from the London Symphony Orchestra.

Replacing an ailing Antonio Pappano, charismatic Kristjan Jrvi on Thursday conducted Adams’ monumental synthesis of minimalism and Romanticism, Harmonielehre, composed around 1984-85.

But the performance, however accurately played, left me cold.

The opening chords were instantly troubling. The ensemble was tight, if undernourished, but the rhythmic stabs lacked spontaneity, seeming a fraction too calculated for comfort. The rhythms carried strongly forward, on the flute, on the brass, on the relentless string figurations, on the (here unco-ordinated) timpani. But the first movement’s lush Romantic core sounded suspiciously like a longueur, and the arching second movement similarly meandered, lines beautifully played but not melded together, rendering the two huge dissonant climaxes empty and overstated.

My impression was that Jrvi conducted vertically, not horizontally. Adams’ rhythmic and melodic repetitions certainly do momentarily excite, but the larger picture must be acknowledged. The E flat major finale was stirringly loud, but a sense of conclusion was missing. The orchestra played with admirable concentration (the two harps especially), but the overall feeling was of a fire with nothing to burn, a state of affairs hardly ideal in what is theoretically one of the towering pillars of twentieth century tonal music.

It was before the interval that the concert sparked to life. Wayne Marshall played Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F with focused, nimble and delicate touch, the rhythms fresh, the melodies glowing. The music flowed with fluid, improvisatory grace. Marshall’s technique could hardly be improved; at times he seemed not to touch the keys but float above them, and even when the dynamic was raised, the piano’s tone remained warm and colourful, with chocolate resonance in Gershwin’s rich chordal harmonies.

Conductor Jrvi seemed emancipated both here and in Gershwin’s An American in Paris where, barring some fleeting moments of scrawny violin tone, the LSO played with humour and grace, the ebullient, orgiastic percussion syncopations dancing nimbly in the Barbican’s acoustic. Come to watch the concert was a wonderfully large number of children, most of whom behaved admirably. The giggling brunettes in the row behind me were sadly the exception.

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