Whatever Beethoven himself said of the Pastoral symphony, it is a beautifully wrought piece of programme music, and Saturday night’s performance of it by the London Philharmonic Orchestra brought out the best in it. Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO managed the delicate balance of playing using period tempi (on the brisk side), and yet allowed some of the early romanticism inherent in the work to shine through in the orchestral colour and expression. It was sheer delight to hear such a fresh performance of this work.
Alexander Raskatov’ s choral work Green Mass received its world première in the concert’s second half . The Festival Hall stage was creakingly full of instruments – a full orchestra with augmented brass section, a vast array of percussion containing everything from fan-blown wind chimes to swanee whistle, electric guitar, cimbalom and piano. Added to this were four soloists (Elena Vassilieva, Iestyn Davies, Mark Padmore and Nikolay Didenko) and a chorus provided by Clare College Cambridge.
The piece consisted of the six movements of the Mass interspersed with poems sung by the four soloists in English, German, Russian, French and Italian… and it was a mess. The whole work felt as though a brilliant sixth-former had been given an unlimited budget and told to create. Yes, absolutely, there were hugely enjoyable moments – the frequent build-ups of cluster chords in the choir were exciting; the massive brass and percussion rhythmic passages (for example at the opening of the Credo) were breathtaking; the stuttering of the word crucifixus across the choir voices to create the effect of the hammering of nails was chilling and inventive; but set against this there were moments of embarrassing comedy – a terrible attack of flatulence from the brass and the bass clarinet at the end of the crucifixus section, a Tom-and-Jerry bedspring effect from a pedal-buzz harp note, the unfortunate sound of the soprano Elena Vassilieva (whose voice, to put it charitably, is mature) imitating birdsong in her solo movement.
Rastakov would do well to study Beethoven’s writing technique, as the biggest problem was that the piece had no development; it felt as though there was no trajectory to it, no destination, but a series of brief-lived acoustic effects strung together into an hour and a half of sound. Raskatov has stated that he likes to use whichever musical style he feels appropriate to a particular piece at that particular moment, but Green Mass seemed to have taken this to new lengths; it was as though each sentence had been weighed for its meaning, and orchestration applied to it to echo that meaning, but with little musical reference to what preceded it and followed it. Nowhere was this more evident than in his setting of the Credo – a movement often split into more than one section, but in Green Mass the audience was given a dizzying parade of sound-worlds from a dreamy vibraphone-accompanied et incarnatus to a sinuous almost-oriental dance in confiteor unum baptisma; the phonic equivalent of reading a novel in which every sentence is printed in a different, meaning-imbued font. The only surcease from this was in the movements for the soloists, where some sort of uniting musical principle across each movement prevailed.
Still, whoever paid for this lavish performance can at least take comfort in the fact that every instrument was played at least once.