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S & H Concert Review

Stravinsky, Benjamin, Mahler, London Symphony Orchestra, Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo), Robert Gambill (tenor), Kent Nagano, Barbican, 2nd February 2003 (AR)


Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale (1907-14/1917) was given an exquisite performance under Kent Nagano’s incisive direction. With his clear and measured beat, Nagano had a masterly control over his forces, securing superb and stylish playing from the London Symphony Orchestra. The conductor allowed all the textures of this score to come through with great transparency, precision and clarity adding the essential ingredients of wit and the magic this music requires. Notably moving were the solo flute and oboe passages depicting the nightingale’s song to the Emperor, and the lone trumpet playing the Fisherman’s Song which concludes the work.

Although George Benjamin’s Antara had echoes of both the flanking chinoiserie works – Mahler’s Das Lied being partly based on Chinese poems - Antara has a distinctive sound world of its own, inspired by the Inca Empire of Peru. As Benjamin’s programme notes explain: "Antara is an ancient Inca word for panpipe; a term still used in Peru today."

Benjamin remarks on the technical problems involved in playing panpipes: "However, panpipes also have many severe constraints, including great restrictions on pitch mobility and velocity. Long held notes are impossible…" To transcend these problems the composer turned to computerisation, recording, filtering and amplifying the sounds of the panpipes, subsequently ‘played’ via a computer synthesiser keyboard.

The composer uses the ‘primitive’ texture of the panpipe to contrast and counterpoint three groups of instruments: two flutes; a string octet, and two trombones placed with a battery of percussion. Sometimes the panpipes punctuate, at others they blend with the ensemble. In the first part of the work the panpipe is used in a quasi-traditional manner, while in the later sections the synthesised pipes takes on a suspirating sound, reminiscent of breathing in deep sleep, or distant ocean murmurs. The shimmering sound of the panpipe contrasted violently with the snarling trombones and the metallic percussion, which in turn were set against jagged razor- sharp strings. The contrast of these juxtaposed instruments was both daring and disturbing: one felt nervous, almost disorientated by experiencing rather than listening to this score. It seems to me that for Benjamin the function of hearing has been subtracted from the ear, and the sounds go straight to the nervous system, the body.

This was a challenging and difficult work for both conductor and players, combining as it does modern electronics, complex time signatures and innovative instrumentation. All concerned rose to the challenge magnificently.

Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was given one of the most serene and profound performances this reviewer can recall. The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery was dramatically launched with a blossoming of orchestral sounds - which proved overwhelming - and the LSO players excelled themselves in all departments. Unfortunately, tenor Robert Gambill has a rather dry timbre creating a sound world rather redundant of drama.

By complete contrast, Anne Sofie von Otter’s The Lonely One in Autumn had a great sense of reserve and distillation; a kind of melting melancholia, blending her voice perfectly with the orchestra.

The Farewell was the highlight of this performance. Here Nagano led us into a barren desolate world, with the LSO taking on darker, more sombre tones, notably from bleak and weighty ‘cellos and double basses. Throughout this movement it was the exquisite and sensitive woodwind playing that so perfectly complemented von Otter’s stark and radiant sounds; it often seemed as if this singer was taking on the very textures and sonorities of the woodwind. Von Otter’s genius is that you become no longer aware that she is a solo singer - she has become another instrument in the orchestra.

Von Otter closing Der Abschied melted into nothingness and Nagano kept the audience applause at bay allowing the silence to be held. As von Otter left the stage she seemed drained of life, as if she had poured out her entire being through her voluptuous voice. It is difficult to find superlatives apt enough for this singer’s performance – sublime will have to suffice.

Alex Russell


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