Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Roth @ Barbican Hall, London

13 April 2013

The London Symphony Orchestra’s celebration of contemporary music, LSO Futures, reached a climax with a performance of seminal twentieth century works, and a world premiere.

Anton Webern’s Opus 1 Passacaglia remains his most accessible work. Composed in 1908 following four years of study with Arnold Schoenberg, the piece is typical of the Second Viennese School – early serialist techniques coupled with lush, late Romantic orchestration, encased within a traditional Baroque form. The sets of variations within the work also hint at Webern’s later minimalist brevity. Conductor François-Xavier Roth had a keen awareness of all these features, and elicited an intense response from the LSO players.

Jumping ahead four decades, Roth and the LSO plunged into a thrilling rendition of Pierre Boulez’ Notations. Originally a set of short piano pieces, the Notations exhibit the influence of Webern in their ascetic economies of sound. By the late 1970s, Boulez had re-envisioned the work, orchestrating and extending five of the original 12 Notations pour piano. Roth clearly knows these orchestral variants well, and he marshalled the large forces of the LSO into a well-disciplined troupe of players, peeling away Boulez’ multiple layers of harmony and tonal complexity. The stridently rhythmic third and fifth Notations (based on numbers four and two in the piano version) were particularly thrilling.

The new work at the centre of the programme, Panufnik Variations, was a collaborative work consisting of a set of variations by nine up-and-coming composers on a theme by the Polish-born composer. The culmination of a composition project led by Colin Matthews, the opening theme, the first variation, and the concluding finale were written by the composer himself. Inevitably, this many-handed work lacked a distinctive voice and overall cohesion. The nine young composers can clearly write and orchestrate music well, but, apart from Matthews’ top and tail contributions, none of them quite shook off the heavy influence of other composers. This was especially noticeable in Toby Young’s English folk-inflected Variation 5 (Britten) and Larry Goves’ faintly atonal Variation 7 (Berg). Elsewhere, there were clear echoes of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern.

Roth’s exploration of symphonic sound worlds ended with a peerless performance of Claude Debussy’s La Mer. The closest thing Debussy ever came to writing a symphony, this work more than any other coupled his fascination for the sea with his brilliance at orchestral scene painting. In this performance, Roth worked with his own brush – freely mixing his instrumental palette and adapting tempi to suit the ebb and flow of the seascapes. Take, for instance, his deliberate slowing down of the music just before the climax of the first movement, From Dawn to Noon on the Sea. This well-judged change in pace gave the effect of a gathering swell in advance of the final tidal burst. Roth’s gift for pulling out specific instrumental voices also added up to an interpretation that must surely have been close to Debussy’s original intentions.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk

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