Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO completely at home with old and new from Hummel, Tchaikovsky and Ngwenyama

2 February 2023

The Barbican brings West Coast vibes.

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre (Photo: Dion Barrett)

One sometimes approaches new music from California with trepidation; it can be clever, arresting and eminently enjoyable, or, sadly, fall into the cliché of New Age overthinking. Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s Primal Message, receiving its UK première at the Barbican on Thursday, seemed, from its title and introduction (a possible musical message to broadcast to the distant stars, about which the composer has mused “Are we really ready to connect with another life form, when we’re having such a hard time connecting with each other?”) that it might fall into the second category. Not so. It’s an eminently approachable work that’s lush and almost filmic in its essentially 19th century tonalities. Scored for string orchestra, harp, percussion and celeste, it’s full of little pentatonic passages, harp and cymbal whooshes, string portamenti twinkling tuned percussion, and a charming music box interlude for the celeste.

The London Symphony Orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth (standing in for the unfortunately indisposed Xian Zhang) brought the piece to life, highlighting all of its harmonic opulence, although the intonation and consistency of tone in the strings felt, compared to their performance in the subsequent works, occasionally a little uneven.

The orchestra was joined by their Principal Trumpet, James Fountain for a performance of Hummel’s E flat (originally E major) concerto for trumpet, a concerto with such an oddly lengthy opening orchestral exposition that one wonders whether Hummel actually forgot he was writing for a soloist. Here we were on solid Classical footing, and, although this was not an original instrument ensemble, all of the tropes of the style were given meticulous attention to highlight this often neglected composer’s compositional skills – excellent dynamic control within the constraints of the form, good balance between strings and winds, and some cheeky playing with texture (the roughness of the string texture, for example, for the ‘oompahs’ at the end of the first movement). Hummel’s little nods to works of the period (particularly the slow movement’s near parody of that of Mozart’s C major piano concerto) were performed with calculated insouciance.

“…an eminently approachable work that’s lush and almost filmic in its essentially 19th century tonalities”

Fountain’s performance was flawless – playing without a score, he communicated well with the audience, making a live performance that much more exciting. His instrument’s tone, throughout, was controlled with a consummate professionalism, and the pyrotechnic runs and frills of the final galloping movement were executed with casual brilliance. Hummel seemingly didn’t intend for any cadenzas in the concerto, else, doubtless, we might have had demonstration of even more agile artistry.

Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony is arguably the most cheerful and tuneful of his later symphonies, and the LSO and Wigglesworth certainly pulled out all the stops to make it so, serving up an engaging and well-paced account whose 50 minutes seemed to fly by. The opening passage (in which the clarinets introduce the symphony’s idée fixe) was gorgeously sonorous, with Wigglesworth allowing lots of breathing room between musical ideas. Tchaikovsky’s mood swings were deftly handled to highlight warm string tones and stormy brass by turns – the drop in dynamic before the reprise of the march theme in the bassoons was special indeed, as was the pianissimo rasping from basses and timpani at the close of the movement.

The second movement’s mood of subdued disquiet was summoned well with some rough cello timbres, the sweet clarity of the oboe entry, and a well-judged horn throb under the reiteration of the melody by the violins. The third movement received some elegant twirling and gurgling from the woodwind that contributed to its overall feel of a measured but lighthearted waltz. The commendable control of dynamic served the orchestra well in executing the nifty cornering required for the fourth movement’s shifts in ambience from its determined opening string statement, through tempestuous brass to the final swaying grandeur of the idée fixe.

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LSO completely at home with old and new from Hummel, Tchaikovsky and Ngwenyama