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S & H Concert Review

Ives, Benjamin, Ravel; London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; David Zinman (con); Barbican Centre: 5th June, 2003 (AR)

 

Conducting studies at Boston Symphony's Tanglewood Music Centre brought David Zinman to the attention of Pierre Monteux, who guided his conducting career and gave him his first conducting opportunities with the LSO; I found Zinman’s intricate and impassioned reading of Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe even greater than Monteux’s celebrated 1959 LSO Decca account.

Charles Ive’s Three Places in New England is a rarely played work and it was given a highly concentrated and sensitive reading. The opening section, The St.Guadens’ in Boston Common, had an extraordinary eerie tone set by the LSO’s ghostly strings which created a sense of distance and wilderness. A camp, carnivalesque mood came through in the second movement: Putnam’s camp, Redding, Connecticut, with Zinman making the brass and percussion sound like a grotesque parody of a brass band (very much in the manner Mahler had done). As the brass reached a climax of white noise, accompanied by a superbly played nailing timpani roll, the music abruptly melted back into a calm serenity. In the concluding movement, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, the LSO strings played with a hushed intensity, producing a silky sheen of sound evoking the mist over the river bed which the composer recalled when writing this piece. Throughout this evocative performance Zinman conducted with exacting economy securing superb playing from the LSO.

George Benjamin stated in the programme notes on his Sudden Time (1989-1993): "…I wanted the music to flow with considerable agility, the material evolving across the orchestra, sometimes in several different directions simultaneously. The resulting structure oscillates between focused, pulsed simplicity and whirlpools of complex polyrhythm An organic sense of continuity between these extremes is made possible by the fact that all material, however plain or elaborate, is based on a few musical ells of great simplicity." A composer’s intentions in theory do not necessarily materialise in practice. This was music of fractured fragments and ruptures, which negated continuity and organic growth, with sounds splitting off and suddenly dissolving. It seemed as if Benjamin had composed in contemporary cliches so predictable were the noises and he seemed to be trying to achieve a kind of ethnic radicalism with his use of a politically correct, ‘primitive’ percussion. In his notes, the composer also writes on why he admires the other two compositions on the programme, both of which use a very sparing battery of percussion: less is often more. The reality, however, was that Benjamin’s over-use of percussion merely succeeded in negating the intensity he wished to create.

The concert closed with a paradigm performance of Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe. The conductor had obviously thoroughly thought out this multi-layered score and knew exactly when to hold back or unleash his forces. The opening Introduction had the right degree of subdued mystery as we encountered distant sounds slowly coming into being. The danse generale was conducted with the essential lilt without the percussion drowning out the strings. Danse grotesque de dorcon was perfectly paced, with the conductor perfectly articulating the lithe, jagged and thrusting dance rhythms; while the Danse de lyceion had some exquisite woodwind solos perfectly modulated.

The most evocative moment of this performance was the Danse lente et mysterieuse with the LSO producing some of the most subtle and sublime playing I have ever heard from any orchestra. Zinman coaxed the strings to play with an extremely subtle shimmering sound as if being played from afar, accompanied by the wind machine which, for once, was not over-done but blended in beautifully. In the Deuxieme partie: Introduction the LSO Chorus were on quite outstanding form, producing a radiant glow gradually building up in force and intensity until the full orchestra exploded with a torrent of sound with the savage Danse guerriere where Zinman initiated a throbbing pulse turning up the tension and making the music more manic and warlike. Here the brass and woodwind had real cutting edge, while the men from the LSO Chorus produced a menacing stabbing sound suddenly ending in abrupt silence: I have never before heard this done with such intensity and attack.

The Pantomime of part three had some rhythmically buoyant and voluptuous flute solos floating on a soft bed of strings, taking us into the closing Danse generale with Zinman perfectly building up the energy to end in an overwhelming explosion of sound. Every member of the LSO was on immaculate form, with some notably subtle harp and timpani playing. Throughout, the LSO Chorus were simply flawless and sang with a haunting and hypnotic quality. This outstanding account of Daphnis & Chloe was an illuminating and intoxicating experience.


Alex Russell

 

 


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