The LSO’s autumn 2021 season: a retrospective

Writer and journalist Paul Driver looks back over the LSO’s concerts during autumn 2021.

The London Symphony Orchestra’s 2021 autumn season at the Barbican came like a deliverance from the dark. The last words about the orchestra that I wrote for the Sunday Times before the March 2020 lockdown put paid to further concerts (as it happens, they were my last words as a live-event reviewer for the paper at all!) were a note of enthusiasm for Susanna Mällki’s account of Debussy’s La mer, given what seemed a latter-day impressionistic prologue in the form of Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna Magica (2008), a kaleidoscope of strange new colour.

I said I’d keep this piece in my mind as an earnest of the musical future, and that future plausibly arrived (in its live embodiment – for the orchestra continued its business online through bleak pandemic months) on 12 September 2021, with a lively, all-English programme by the orchestra and its chorus conducted by Sir Simon Rattle (top image © Mark Allan). There were two modern works to follow on, as it were, from the Saariaho: Judith Weir’s Natural History (1998) – settings for soprano and orchestra of Taoist texts – and two movements from Julian Anderson’s ambitious, choral-orchestral Exiles, an LSO co-commission, which would doubtless have been heard in full had the lockdown not drastically limited choral rehearsal. The concert began arrestingly with a Purcell anthem (‘Remember not, Lord, our offences’) that led straight into the radiant exhilaration of Tippett’s 1962 Praeludium for Brass, Percussion and Bells. Light and hope were being discovered at the end of the tunnel (though of course we aren’t out of the pandemic yet!), and the second half’s performance of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony (No 3) was like a spiritual balm.

Modern-jazz premiere at LSO St Luke’s

Thus the season got under way, with great relief, no doubt, to all. And it embraced lunchtime and early-evening chamber recitals and Discovery educational events at LSO St Luke’s, as well as a modern-jazz premiere – the saxophonist Soweto Kinch’s co-commissioned White JuJu– at the Barbican. There were early evening Half Six Fix single-item programmes at the Barbican, and the main concerts started early too (7pm). But with no loss of substance! The second main event was a programme under Rattle that consisted of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and the British premiere of an orchestral song-cycle, Where are You?, by the Czech Ondrej Adamek (b.1979), in which the prodigious soprano soloist was Magdalena Kožená. The ten diverse texts, in various languages, all deal with the search for God, and the treatments require uncommon versatility of vocal technique. Abstract avant-garde procedures, phonetic analysis and textural innovation, not un-reminiscent of Luciano Berio’s music, dominated at first, but there was a gradual infusion of tonality and a folkloristic element. It wasn’t just for that reason, though, that the piece proved far more compelling than one might have expected. This remarkable score has a persuasive power working, as I realised, steadily from within. Two other new pieces, beside Kinch’s jazz score, and a late-added short essay by Mark-Anthony Turnage, were assigned to the autumn season, but the British premiere of Sally Beamish’s Distans: Double Concerto for Violin and Clarinet had to be postponed. The London premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Viola Concerto was part of a four-concert ‘Artist Portrait’ of the imaginative French violist, Antoine Tamestit, and opened a concert under Daniel Harding that otherwise afforded two of Dvořák’s late, not-so-often aired symphonic poems, a theme of the season. Tamestit was heard to wonderful advantage in the Walton Concerto, given earlier both at the Barbican and LSO St Luke’s under Robin Ticciati’s direction, alongside accounts of Brahms’s Symphony No 4, for which Ticciati revealed a moving affinity.

Many roads to Bruckner

There was novelty of a historical kind in Rattle’s daring third main programme of the season, which he devoted in scholarly fashion to the textual problems of Bruckner’s Symphony No 4, 'Romantic'. We were presented with Bruckner’s discarded versions (1874-78) of the scherzo and finale – the latter, entitled ‘Volksfest’, having its first professional outing in this country – followed by the premiere of a new edition of the symphony by the German conductor Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs. It needed no soul-searching to decide that Bruckner was right to reject both versions, despite a sort of brutally direct charm that they evince. And the new edition left me puzzled. I was following the 1994 Eulenburg miniature score of Leopold Nowak’s 1878/80 version and could register hardly any divergence until the last dozen and a half pages. But I wouldn’t want to say more. As Rattle observed in his engaging pre-performance address, once you start trying to sort out the variant problems of Bruckner’s symphonies you will lose the desire to live.

Rósza and Bartók

Rattle, alas, was forced into isolation by the Covid-19 virus before the end of the season, and his final four concerts were taken over by Kirill Karabits, making his debut with the Orchestra. The first of the two main progammes (there were also two Half Six Fixes) juxtaposed a work each by Miklós Rózsa and Bartók, two Hungarians. The former’s virtuosic Violin Concerto, Op 24 (1953), had eloquent, brilliant advocacy from the LSO leader Roman Simovic as soloist. The instant Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943) began one knew what it was to be in the presence of a conductor with something urgent to say. Karabits shaped this great five-movement arc with deftness and insight. The central Elegia was startlingly impassioned.

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