On screen: Barbara Hannigan, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Stravinsky: Rite of Spring; Berg: Wozzeck Fragments; Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre (LSO Live)

Webern Six Pieces op.6 (1909/28)
Berg Three Fragments from Wozzeck, op. 7 (1923)
Ligeti arr. Howarth Mysteries of the Macabre (1992)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (1913)

Barbara Hannigan (soprano – Berg & Ligeti), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO3028 [84’58’’] One DVD and one Blu-ray disc

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from its all-French programme (LSO3038), LSO Live here releases a further concert by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle on DVD and Blu-ray – once again a co-production with the digital channel Mezzo and in association with ARTE France.

What’s the music like?

Rattle has long been an advocate of Webern’s Six Pieces and made a fine recording of it in his Birmingham days. This LSO account is notable for its scrupulous attention to dynamics and tonal shading, even if such fastidiousness minimizes any real spontaneity in this elusive music. A case in point is the rather effortful climax to the explosive second piece, while the ‘funeral march’ fourth lacks underlying momentum on the way to its powerful though hardly unnerving culmination. Elsewhere, this music’s subdued introspection is tellingly conveyed.

The Three Fragments which Berg drew from Wozzeck follows on naturally. Focussing on the character of Marie enabled the composer to bring together three of this opera’s highlights for concert use, and Barbara Hannigan brings a probing characterization to the lullaby from Act One then the bible-reading scene from Act Three. She captures the naivety of the child at the close of the third fragment, before which the LSO comes into its own in a powerful while not unduly vehement interlude prior to the final scene – Rattle steering them through unerringly.

Hannigan returns in rather different guise for Mysteries of the Macabre that Elgar Howarth arranged from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. This present-day staple of the coloratura repertoire lends itself to all manner of parody and if Hannigan’s juvenile delinquent might be felt inappropriate for a chief of secret police, her vocal contribution is uninhibited in its virtuosity. Rattle and his orchestra enter-into the music’s anarchic accordingly, the former’s joke at the expense of Nigel Farage seeming all too ironic in the light of subsequent events.

Rattle’s association with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring goes back to the outset of his career and hearing this account is a reminder of his prowess in music the LSO has itself played many times. Yet for all the consummate technical skill, there is a nagging sense of conductor and orchestra going through the motions to ultimately predictable effect (indeed, the performance from Peter Eötvös with the LSO later that season generated much more genuine excitement and sense of purpose). Easy to admire, there is little here to make one assess this work afresh.

Does it all work?

Absolutely in terms of a programme both cohesive and provocative. Things are more mixed in term of performances – with those of the Berg and (musically at least) the Ligeti as good as one is ever likely to hear, that of the Webern just a little too micro-managed overall and the Stravinsky a reminder that superb playing and expert conducting do not necessarily make for a gripping interpretation.

As an indication of Rattle’s association with the orchestra of which he subsequently became Music Director, there is much here that is enjoyable and engrossing

Is it recommended?

Yes, in terms of a concert to which one might wish to return on repeated occasions. Sound and vision leave little to be desired in either format, though post-production means that there is little sense of the orchestra performing in a tangible acoustic – Barbican Hall or otherwise.

For more information on this release, visit the LSO Live website

Vilde Frang, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Peter Oundjian – Viennese classics in Dundee

Ben Hogwood visits Dundee’s magnificent Caird Hall for an trio of Viennese works given by violinist Vilde Frang, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and principal conductor Peter Oundjian
Caird Hall, Dundee, Thursday 12 November

Webern Langsamer Satz (1905), arr for string orchestra by Gerard Schwarz

Brahms Violin Concerto (1878)

Mozart Symphony no.41 in C, ‘Jupiter’ (1788)

What a magnificent setting for a concert. Dundee’s Caird Hall will be well known as an attraction by the locals but it bears repeating that the venue is an excellent acoustic for classical music, as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conductor Peter Oundjian observed in his brief talk to the audience before the concert.

The high ceiling was perfect for the burnished ardour of Webern’s Langsamer Satz, written while the composer was still in a tonal way of thinking and in thrall to his hero Mahler. Although normally heard through the intimate medium of the string quartet, this arrangement, made by the conductor Gerard Schwarz for string orchestra, worked extremely well, and the RSNO strings made a beautiful and clean sound that left us in no doubt as to the composer’s feelings towards his cousin – who was later to become his wife.

The Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang then joined the enhanced orchestra for another Viennese piece, Brahms’s Violin Concerto­ – and in the process she built on a relationship already established with the erte concerto last year. Frang is not a player prone to exaggerated gestures or one-upmanship on the orchestra and this was the ideal approach for the Brahms, where the two forces work together and where the orchestra often have the better tunes. Oboist Adrian Wilson, acknowledged by Frang at the end, was superb in his slow movement solo, and while this was perhaps a more ‘classical’ reading looking back towards Schubert, Frang took the difficult and extended solo passages, particularly the cadenzas, by the scruff of the neck and refused to let them go.

Completing the Viennese trio was Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, his last – with Oundjian sensibly reducing the forces in the name of clarity. This was an extremely fine performance where the rapport between the RSNO and their conductor was abundantly clear, and where he ensured that Mozart’s deceptively simple themes were beautifully communicated and developed. A graceful minuet was notable for the floated violin delivery, though in the trio the minor key harmonies sowed the seeds of disquiet.

These were emphatically blown away by the finale, one of Mozart’s greatest achievements as a composer in his successful dovetailing of all five themes in a brilliantly worked fugue. Oundjian took this at a daringly fast tempo but we never lost sight of the tunes, the orchestra working incredibly hard to keep their lines clear and crisp. The enjoyment of all – players and audience – was clear, for this was music to banish even the squalliest of November nights.