Debussy, Varèse & Mahler: LSO, Riccardo Chailly, Barbican - 19 March 2000.
Gone are the days when Varèse emptied concert halls, and rightly so. The Barbican Hall was packed, probably there to hear Riccardo Chailly, the world's finest conductor of Varèse's music. No one was disappointed. Neither was one disappointed with the Debussy. And nor were the cheering crowds disappointed with a sensational Mahler First.
Only a couple of weeks ago I wrote in these pages of Lorin Maazel's towering 'Resurrection' with an LSO on electrifying form. I thought it one of the finest Mahler performances London could have seen for almost fifteen years. Riccardo Chailly's Mahler First was even greater than this, a performance that in the last movement was simply incandescent. The LSO have often been described as playing this great symphony like no other orchestra, and, with Mahler giants like Bernstein and Solti amongst many ghosts in the annals of this orchestra's Mahler legacy, no wonder. The symphony burns in their hands, the fire reaching a heat no other orchestra matches. The exultant brilliance of the closing pages here produced brass playing of not only staggering precision, but of a gleaming polish that one often associates with American orchestras. That it lacked American vulgarity was Mr Chailly's triumph. But there was more, much more.
The opening bars of the symphony were captured magically. Strings were not only warm-toned, but deeply sonorous. The woodwind, on superlative form all night, blended their tone evocatively. As in the greatest orchestras (and one thinks most clearly of the Phiharmonia Orchestra of the 1950s) this appeared an orchestra of outstanding individualists. The Frère Jacques theme that opens the third movement was almost unbearably poignant, Rinat Ibragimov imbuing his double bass solo with considerable beauty. His phrasing, as well as that of the strings, in their energetic playing of the Jewish melodies, was outstandingly natural. These violins were as graceful as dancers, the woodwind and brass as broadly sweeping as Impressionist artists. Here we were presented with a canvas of priceless artistry. The movement developed as inevitably as an emerging morning dawn, and at the beginning of the final movement one was not surprised at all that one of Mr Barantschik's violin strings snapped. The velocity of the opening was as shocking as cannon fire that shatters the stillness. Upper harmonics were as spiritual as they were intense with a quite phenomenal range to the depth.
This was a peerless performance that raised the roof. The Hampshire County Youth Orchestra, who had spent the afternoon in instrumental coaching sessions with the LSO in Mahler's Third Symphony, could not have found more worthy teachers.
The evening had begun with two of Debussy's Nocturnes, Nuages and Fêtes. Diametrically opposed in mood, they stand ideally together as an example of Debussy's alchemy. The performances were tranquil and restive, with a refinement to the playing that, for once, clarified the complex introversion of the melodic line. In Nuages, the beauty evolved from delicate phrasing - slow, solemn and fading from greyness into a blinding white. In Fêtes, the cosmic rhythms vibrated, later emerging into a blinding light. Mr Chailly used his hands to coerce the most subtle of phrases and dynamics. The response was vivid.
Varèse is much maligned by audiences afraid that all of his music is as sonically shocking as Ionisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The two songs we heard, Un grand sommeil noir (1906) and Offrandes (1912) are both beautifully orchestrated. If the first is darker, with its low strings resonating, and the soprano's voice piercing through at moments of ecstasy, the second is more imaginative, with its complex woodwind and brass harmonies. It is certainly starker, but no less intense. Mireille Delunsch sang these pieces beautifully (even if, at times, her diction seemed less than precise). The voice may have appeared slightly strained in the second song, but her last notes on the word 'assassinées' were truly memorable. Mr Chailly was masterful throughout.
This was a red letter day, no doubt, and a concert that will remain talked about for some years.
Riccardo Chailly will conduct the LSO in two further concerts on Wednesday 22 March and Thursday 23 March. The first concert will untangle the mysteries of the Rite of Spring, before Thursday's concert which programmes Ives, Bartok and Stravinsky's Rite. Tickets £6-£35, from 020 738 8891.
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