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Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op 6 (1909-10, rev 1927-30)
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Three Fragments from Wozzeck (1924)
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Mysteries of the macabre (1977)
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring (1913)
Barbara Hannigan (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live 15 January 2015, Barbican Hall, London
Texts included. No subtitles.
Blu-ray: Video format: BD25 (all regions), 16:9, HD 1080i (NTSC). Audio format:16bit 48kHz, 2.0 PCM Stereo
DVD: Video format: DVD9 (Region 0), 16:9 (NTSC). Audio format:16bit48kHz, 2.0 PCM Stereo
LSO LIVE LSO3028 Blu-ray/DVD [85:00]

This is such a typical Rattle programme. It was performed with the LSO before he became the orchestra’s music director and in its uncompromising focus on twentieth-century music it was surely a case of Sir Simon setting out his stall for what may well be in store as his relationship with the LSO flourishes over the coming years. The quality of these performances offers further proof that the Rattle/LSO partnership is likely to be formidable.

Webern’s Six Pieces contain the sort of music that is meat and drink to Rattle though I’m afraid it lies outside my musical comfort zone. I’ve never been able to get to grips with Webern’s music. However, it’s clear that this is a very fine performance. Furthermore, for someone like me who hasn’t yet been able to crack the Webern ‘code’, it’s a very persuasive performance. Rattle’s famed ear for detail and the collective virtuosity of the LSO are great assets in this respect. Every strand is clear and Webern’s textures benefit enormously from having such care lavished on them. I admired the delicacy of the playing in the opening Langsam movement. At the other end of the scale, as it were, there are moments of near-savagery in the following Bewegt. The Sehr mässig movement is especially impressive. The soft percussion murmurings with which it begins are at the edge of audibility – and you can see Rattle being watchful that what is heard in the concert is exactly what was worked on, no doubt painstakingly, in rehearsal. He builds the movement to a huge and cathartic climax and now the percussion, far from playing almost inaudibly, confront the listener with dominant power. The entire performance shows Rattle’s exquisite care for every aspect and nuance of Webern’s textures.

He seems no less in tune with the music of Alban Berg. For the Three Fragments from Wozzeck the orchestra is joined by the extraordinary Canadian soprano, Barbara Hannigan. Not long ago I was greatly impressed by Miss Hannigan’s ability to conduct as well as sing Berg’s music in a performance of the Lulu Suite (review). Here, with Rattle on the podium, she’s able to focus on her singing and, my goodness, does she focus! The start of the first fragment is for orchestra alone. Standing with her back to the audience you can see Hannigan visibly thinking herself into not just the part of Marie but also into the dramatic situation. Once she starts to sing Hannigan is totally convincing while the orchestral contribution from the LSO is superb. In the second fragment, again compellingly done, the episode that particularly resonated with me was the passage where Marie tells the story of the poor child (“Es was einmal ein armes Kind”). Here her narration is at once touching and impassioned. Once again, the playing of the LSO brings palpable atmosphere to the music. The orchestra carries the musical argument for most of the third fragment and once again Hannigan turns to face the players until it’s time for her to sing; again, she maintains laser-like concentration even when she’s not participating. The orchestra’s playing in this section is highly expressive and then very urgent in the build-up to the movement’s searing climax. Berg’s music isn’t really natural territory for me but I was deeply impressed – and moved – by this tremendous performance of the Three Fragments. At the end as Miss Hannigan, clad in an elegant wine-coloured gown, takes the applause it’s evident from the reaction of the LSO how highly they regard her.

I mentioned the elegant gown because when Barbara Hannigan returns to the stage her attire could not be more different. Now she saunters on stage dressed as a very grown-up school girl, tottering on high-heeled shoes and clad in a very short tartan skirt, a white shirt and a school tie; her hair is in bunches and she sports a huge pair of spectacles. She’s blowing bubbles and as she reaches the centre of the stage she passes her chewed bubble gum to Rattle, who sticks it to the underside of his music stand. So, the attire is completely outrageous but that’s as nothing compared to what is to follow.

You have to burrow away in the notes to find that what we hear is an arrangement by Elgar Howarth of the arias performed in the opera Le Grand Macabre by the character of Gepopo, the Chief of the Secret Police. I’ve watched this performance three times now and I still haven’t a clue what’s going on. Gepopo’s lines are fragmentary and seem to make little sense. Whether it would make more sense if I saw the complete opera I don’t know but I have no intention of submitting myself to that ordeal. In the course of Mysteries of the macabre among other things, orchestral players are required to vocalise and, at one point, the percussion players screw up pages of newspaper (why?) and cast them aside. That’s as nothing compared to the extreme vocal demands placed on the soprano. On one level I’m almost repelled by Ligeti’s music: it’s grotesque and wildly over the top. And yet, after three viewings I find that it exerts a strange fascination. Barbara Hannigan’s performance is absolutely astonishing, both in terms of her formidable vocal technique and also her amazing histrionic abilities. You could treat the piece as wildly entertaining – but also extravagantly vulgar. Yet I’m sure there are darker undercurrents and in that respect the piece is perhaps more unsettling than “entertaining”; I don’t know. I take my hat off, though, to Barbara Hannigan and also to Rattle and the LSO for the precision and virtuosity of the performance – and for entering right into the camp spirit of the piece. This is clearly a piece about which there should be no half measures and these performers certainly go for it. At the end the performance brings the house down.

I seriously doubt that I shall ever come to admire let alone love the Ligeti piece. However, the presence on the programme of The Rite of Spring offers a valuable lesson in that regard. The cause of great controversy in 1913, The Rite has long been accepted as an indispensable classic of modern music. The work has been a staple of Rattle’s repertoire for years and I wasn’t surprised to see that he dispenses with a score. I can imagine that some people may not be too impressed with certain aspects of this performance. The very opening, for example, is highly expressive – some may think it too much so – and the first few minutes of Part II are expressive and expertly balanced and shaped. You may feel Rattle’s approach is too Romantic in episodes such as these. I’m persuaded, though, not only on account of the fabulous playing but also because Rattle brings out the fact that by 1913 Stravinsky had not yet quite cast off the legacy of Rimskian romanticism and colour.

There’s plenty of savagery, rhythmic drive and power in the performance as well; for example, the Cortège du sage generates huge power as it builds and the Danse de la terre has tremendous drive. Later, the Ancestors are depicted with what eventually becomes brazen power and the concluding Danse sacrale has great tension and the frenzy and desperation of the final moments of the Chosen One are vividly portrayed. This is a superb performance by a virtuoso orchestra and conductor on top of their collective game.

So, a set of very fine performances; what about the presentation? The package offers collectors both a Blu-ray and DVD disc. I did almost all of my appraisal viewing using the Blu-ray but I sampled the DVD and can confirm that this too offers very good sound and vision. On the Blu-ray the pictures are crisp and clean and the sound is very good. The camera direction is very good and to the point. As a small example, through the director’s selection of shots one comes to have an increased appreciation of the importance of the bass flute part in The Rite. The Blu-ray sound was even better when I played the audio track back through my hi-fi. One major drawback, though, is the absence of subtitles in the Berg and Ligeti pieces. It’s true that the texts are printed in the booklet but one doesn’t want to be constantly looking away from the screen to check the text. This is a most regrettable omission. Subtitles could also have been used with advantage to indicate to viewers the start of each episode in the Webern and Stravinsky pieces.

John Quinn

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