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
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
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
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.