The first of the Barbican’s ‘Roots’ series kicked off on Sunday night with Ligeti’s surprisingly calm piece Lontano, a work which also received a performance in this year’s Proms by the National Youth Orchestra. The LSO under François-Xavier Roth gave a more textured account of its expressivo, however, allowing the timbre of the various orchestral combinations that make up its legato building of note clusters to shine, such that, for example, the whisper of violins playing in a high position set against the throb of low tuba and contrabassoon provided contrast of not only pitch but consistency. Roth and the orchestra handled the light and shade of the piece with precision, and the harmonic shifts, even when the apex of the cluster-chord were reached, were evident.
Bartók’s Cantata Profana is a rare beast on the British concert scene, and it’s not difficult to see why. It has a very central-European character to it, essentially a folk-tale of a father whose nine sons are magically transformed into stags, and Bartók’s love of folk music shines through it. It’s challenging too: heavily contrapuntal (presumably as a nod to Bach’s prodigious cantata output), and also in Hungarian, a language notoriously difficult for anglophones. The orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus met the challenges with verve and accuracy, giving an account that brought to the fore Bartók’s word-painting: the horns and drums energetically announcing the hunt, some spooky harp glissandi to denote the transformation of the young men, some well-co-ordinated unison singing in the second movement (providing relief from the bombardment of stretto entries), and a final fugue that was spat out with gusto. An unnamed bass (who wasn’t the advertised Mark Rose) brought a rich, solid quality to the part of the father, and Julien Behr’s incisive tenor provided an appropriately jejune, heedless tone (especially in his stratospherically high notes) for the eldest son. The piece isn’t easy to love, though; there’s an earnest, worthy air to it, that makes it feel somewhat overblown. Perhaps not as overly ‘the-glorious-Fatherland’ as Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests, but one can’t help wondering whether it would work better as a simple, unaccompanied choral folksong.
Sadly, listening to Roth’s interpretation of Haydn’s Nelson Mass was like watching a thoroughbred being made to pull a farm cart. The London Symphony Chorus in recent years have given some wonderfully nuanced choral performances, so their relentlessly loud dynamic (all the range from mezzo-forte to fortissimo) in this instance can only have been down to Roth’s requirements. He works regularly with Les Siècles, an ensemble that contrasts early and modern music, so it was surprising to listen to such a monochrome choral performance, in which the 130-singer-strong choir frequently outgunned the orchestra. Certainly, Haydn doesn’t require the ultra-refined dynamic shades of Mahler or Berlioz, but some understanding of the choral word-painting (beyond the obvious crescendo/diminuendo in the opening of the Sanctus) would have offered a little surcease from the barrage. The account wasn’t without subtlety but it was mostly in the orchestra (some tender muted-violin work in the Agnus Dei, for example).
Another unlisted bass joined the solo line-up, and gave a beautifully sonorous performance of the ‘Qui tollis’. Indeed, all four soloists including, as well as Julien Behr, Camilla Tilling (soprano) and Adèle Charvet (mezzo), blended well for the Benedictus, and their sections provided the much-needed relief from the wall of sound, albeit that Tilling’s tremendous Haydn moment that has the soprano soaring above the choir in the Kyrie, was completely swamped.