London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth: Half-Six Fix – Stravinsky & Debussy

London Symphony OrchestraFrançois-Xavier Roth (above)

Half-Six Fix

Stravinsky Le chant du rossignol (1917)

Debussy La Mer (1903-1905)

Barbican Hall, London; Wednesday 28 March 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The London Symphony Orchestra’s new Half-Six Fix initiative went ‘live’ with this Stravinsky / Debussy double header; a concert full of colour and mutual appreciation for two of the 20th century giants.

A more relaxed approach was immediately evident on arrival at the Barbican for the early evening hour of music. Downloading the EnCue app gave audience members a stream of content at their disposal, with comprehensive notes on the two pieces as well as artwork and cues for the performances themselves.

Interestingly during the concert I did not witness anybody using their phone in this way – which in a sense was encouraging, for everyone was in thrall to the performers themselves. The other major disadvantage with reading concert notes on a mobile phone is the distraction of notifications from elsewhere. Surely one of the great advantages of live music is that it takes you to a special place away from everyday life! That said, the resources available do also give the option for reading between pieces, and were of a high quality to make them fully worthwhile.

Our compere for the evening was François-Xavier Roth and he was the ideal host, introducing the pieces with a nice line in respect and humour. The use of musical examples with the orchestra was helpful – flautist Gareth Davies showed off Stravinsky’s Le chant du Rossignol, while it was nice to see glockenspiel and cymbals promoted to the front line so that we could appreciate Debussy’s masterly use of the orchestra in La mer.

The performances were superb. Le chant du Rossignol had rhythmic precision and musical finesse, telling the story of the nightingale and the efforts of its Japanese imitators to emulate its song in vivid, widescreen technicolour. Stravinsky’s inspiration in this piece was revealed to be very close to Petrushka, and Roth conducted a performance that brought the melodies to the front but emphasised some wonderful textures conjured up in the middle foreground. There were visuals, and fleeting glimpses of solos, but it seemed the LSO had not fully decided whether to show the orchestra in full or images derived from the piece, settling for a halfway approach which was fleetingly helpful.

Watching the orchestra was definitely enough – their standard these days is as high as ever, and if anything was even better for La mer. Clearly this is one of Roth’s first loves, and from a seat near to the orchestra you could practically feel the spray as the orchestra dived in.

Tempo choices were on the whole assertive but never at the expense of detail and expression, and when the final swell came in the third movement, Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the wind and the waves).

Roth is an ideal host for this sort of evening, which can be wholeheartedly recommended, a case of quality winning over quantity – and it is pitched at a level where everyone present, from the first time attendee to the hundredth, will learn something new and get a fresh perspective. A great initiative for opening the mind to classical music in a more relaxed setting.

On record: The Panufnik Legacies II (LSO Live)

lso-panufnik-legacies-2

Colin Matthews, Max de Wardner, Evis Sammoutis, Christopher Mayo, Toby Young, Elizabeth Winters, Larry Goves, Raymond Yiu, Anjula Semmens and Edmund Finnis Panufnik Variations
Duncan Ward P-p-paranoia
Alastair Putt Spiral
Aaron Parker Captured
Kim B. Ashton Spindrift
James Moriarty Granular Fragments
Elizabeth Ogonek as though birds
Leo Chadburn Brown Leather Sofa
Bushra El-Turk Tmesis
Matthew Kaner The Calligrapher’s Manuscript

London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth

Summary

Three years on and the Panufnik Legacies series continues with a disc no less substantial if perhaps less diverse than its predecessor. Beginning with a set of variations on the opening theme from what is arguably the Polish-born composer’s greatest work, this continues with nine pieces again by participants of the Panufnik Composers Scheme – all testament to the scope and ambition of the LSO Discovery project which has played a crucial, even decisive role in introducing many new composers to audiences at the Barbican and LSO St Luke’s.

What’s the music like?

Panufnik Variations comprises the ‘theme’ from that composer’s Universal Prayer (1969), followed by 11 variations that open-out its essence without always probing it in any depth. From this perspective, variations by Evis Sammoutis, Christopher Mayo, Larry Goves and Anjula Semmens (3, 4, 7 and 9) are the most perceptive, with that by Raymond Yiu (8) the most entertaining in its allusion to a more famous Panufnik work often revived by the LSO. Colin Matthews orchestrated theme, first and final variations in highly professional fashion.

Of the stand-alone pieces, Duncan Ward’s P-p-paranoia packs a fair degree of incident into compact proportions, while Alastair Putt’s Spiral takes a segment of the Fibonacci Sequence as basis for its accumulating impetus. Aaron Parker’s Captured evidently utilizes ‘‘looping techniques and ambient forms’’ for its four brief fragments without a context, then Kim B. Ashton’s Spindrift evokes abstract seascapes in its ebb and flow. James Moriarty’s Granular Fragments evolves his notions of timbre and texture over three subtly contrasted miniatures.

Elizabeth Ognek’s as though birds elides its three miniatures into a cohesive if unfocussed whole, whereas Leo Chadburn’s Brown Leather Sofa brings a de Chirico-like ethos to bear on his austere musical sculpture. Bushra El-Turk’s Tmesis draws on Arabic prosody for a piece abundant in gestures that ultimately lack distinction. Finally, Matthew Kerner’s The Calligrapher’s Manuscript looks to the model-books from Johan Hering in a lengthy (12-minute) work whose two parts respectively predicate textural density then melodic clarity.

Does it all work?

Yes, inasmuch that all of these pieces – each written between 2011 and 2013 – give notice of compositional techniques thoroughly absorbed and confidently handled. If there is a proviso, it is that most (but not all) of them seem almost too well suited to the premise of small-scale works designed to slot into an ostensibly mainstream programme without causing any undue provocation. That several composers operate in part outside of the classical domain feels of little consequence when the music in question follows so overtly a post-modernist template.

Is it recommended?

Certainly, though the greater stylistic range of the first Panufnik Legacies release (LSO Live LSO5061) is a better starting-point for those wishing to get a real sense of what this scheme is about. What is never in doubt here is the excellence of the London Symphony Orchestra’s playing as it tackles these pieces, or of François-Xavier Roth’s commitment to a cause made possible in part via the involvement of the Panufnik estate. Two years after that composer’s centenary, one can only hope his own music will retain more than a foothold in the repertoire.

Richard Whitehouse