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S & H Concert Review

Sibelius, Benjamin, Debussy; London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano, Barbican Centre, 9th July, 2003 (AR)


Part of the ‘By George: Encounters with George Benjamin’ series, this concert proved to be a bit of a curate’s egg. Beginning with a very mannered performance of Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela (the hushed opening passages exquisitely played by the LSO strings, however), things turned rather sour; the cor anglais, played by Christine Pendrill, was surprisingly bland, and this lack of focus and pointedness robbed the music of its poignancy. Antonio Pappano opted for a very slow, dragging tempo which seemed to hold the players back, negating the throbbing pulse and flow of the music. Fortunately, for the later dramatic moments the conductor changed pace, producing a greater tension from his players, with some notably intense brass and bass drum playing. Curiously the LSO ended playing the piece five seconds before Pappano’s final gestures: a long time in music.

Pappano’s interpretation of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony was vigorous – too vigorous, to the point of sounding brash. A wilfully exaggerated dynamic range, allied to arbitrary tempi, fragmented and impeded the flow of the music. Although this symphony is divided into Adagio; Vivacissimo; Allegro; Moderato; Vivace; Presto; Adagio – it has to be conducted as an indivisible entity and as a unified seamless progression (as the composer clearly intended).

Despite the conductor’s mannered phrasing, the LSO strings played superbly, whilst timpanist Andrew Smith played far too loudly; the blame has to pass to the conductor for this, as Smith is a seasoned and experienced musician. Throughout Pappano appeared to be conducting for the audience rather than for the orchestra: his gestures were often superfluous and histrionic, with the LSO not always being able to follow him, resulting in certain entries becoming smudged. Moreover, he gave the impression of not listening to the orchestra, and seemed unaware of what they were playing.

The second half of the concert opened with George Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1979-80), which was inspired by a photograph of a thunderstorm over the new Mexico desert and a part of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Benjamin says of his score in the programme notes: "I wanted to portray an eerie tension as the landscape is overwhelmed by a vast storm." – and he goes on to give an elaborate description of the sounds of the score. Maybe Benjamin should be a writer rather than a composer, as his written programme notes seemed to be far more evocative than the score itself.

Ringed by the Flat Horizon can only be described as contrived conceptual music, devoid of musical content and coherence. Benjamin continued: "Sibelius is widely praised for the fierce economy, cohesion and strength of his symphonic structures. But these attributes would be of little interest if his works did not sound so magnificent" (composer’s emphasis). Benjamin needs to learn from Sibelius’ ‘fierce economy, cohesion and strength’ if he wants his own music to sound special.

The orchestral textures in the opening sections of Ringed sounded opaque, congested and arbitrarily connected and it was only towards the concluding moments that some imaginative writing for brass and bass drum gave the eerie sensation of a distant rumbling thunderstorm. The LSO played with great incisiveness and sensitivity throughout, and actually ended playing the score eight seconds before Pappano had stopped conducting, those eight seconds sounding like an eternity. The audience did not seem to be able to identify or empathise with this score and their dutiful applause confirmed their disinterest.

The concluding work, Debussy’s La Mer: Three Symphonic Sketches (1903-05) was far more suited to this conductor’s wild and vivacious temperament. The first sketch ‘From Dawn to Noon on the Sea’ was conducted surprisingly straight, mercifully free of mannerism and excess. Pappano created a great sense of urgency, tension and terror, evoking the violent sensations and changing moods of the sea.

In ‘The Play of the Waves’, Pappano admirably brought out the multiple darting cross-rhythms and glistening orchestral textures which can so often sound blurred and lost: this was certainly the best conducted music of the evening. Unfortunately, in the concluding sketch, ‘Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea’, he fell back into his podium antics, egging on the LSO to play excessively loudly (particularly Andrew Smith’s brutal timpani), no doubt in order to whip up excitement for the big finish. The LSO merely drowned each other out in the concluding bars, resorting to a noisy free-for-all. The audience was drenched in a sea of sound which actually hurt the ear: this was not so much music making as statutory audible rape. All conductors should learn the difference between rape and seduction – salesmanship!

Alex Russell



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