Royal Festival Hall
Biber: Battalia à 10 in D major
Beethoven: Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36
Unsuk Chin: Le Chant des enfants des étoiles (European premiere)
Trinity Boys Choir (director: David Swinson)Philharmonia Voices (director: Aidan Oliver)
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’) Any connections between the first and second halves were not necessarily explicit; this was not an overtly didactic programme (nothing wrong with that, of course). Nevertheless, I fancied I could hear certain pitches, certain turns of phrases, perhaps even certain rhythms, in both; and even if I could not, contrasts fascinated enough.
There was no doubting the avant-gardism of either of the first two composers. Biber’s Battalia opened in lively fashion, soon displaying the composer’s seventeenth-century extended techniques – ‘extended’, by the standards of many a twentieth-century composer too – with col legno playing and foot stamping in its opening ‘Sonata’. Members of the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen offered a splendidly cultivated, non-puritanical sound. (Certain journalists, having learned of a thing called ‘performance practice’ do not like that. They need rules to help them deliver a ‘verdict’.) Then, to take us all by surprise, lest we latter-day Friends of Karajan were becoming too pleased with ourselves, an ‘older, more ‘fiddling’ sound catapulted us back through time to the bizarre, Ivesian quodlibet of ‘Die leideriche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor’, horribly hilarious in its ‘wrongness’. (Would we think so, though, if we had been told it were twenty-first-century music?) Virtuosic solo passages for Mars – Martian?! – a slow aria whose twists surprised as if they were Purcell’s, a battle in which the post-Montverdian stile concitato (and again Purcell) came to mind, and a touching final lament for ‘Verwundten Musquetirer’: these and much more were presented with a relished concision suggesting that Webern had better look to his laurels – that is, had the concert-going public ever permitted him to collect them in the first place.
I freely admit that I had not previously found Salonen’s Beethoven very much to my taste, nor, perhaps more to the point, to my understanding. This performance of the Second Symphony, also of course in D major, proved very different, making me keen to hear more. Where previously I had longed for a more modernistic approach such as I suspected might have been his, here it was: not for its own sake, but emerging from score and programming alike, almost as if a Michael Gielen for our times. The opening chord struck me with its rasping natural trumpets; otherwise, there was nothing – thank goodness – especially ‘period’ about this. Salonen even showed that it is perfectly possible to hear dialogue between first and second violins without placing them on opposite sides of each other. The first movement was lively in a different way from Biber, yet suggestive nevertheless of some sort of kinship. Most notable of all was the real sense of return at the onset of the recapitulation, of joy in a Haydnesque, even Handelian manner. The sheer character of the coda made me smile, as it stormed the heavens in a twenty-first century remodelling of ‘tradition’.
The second movement struck an excellent balance between neo-Mozartian flow and the ‘late’ Brahmsian future. Gorgeous, never narcissistic, richness to the inner parts proved an especial joys; as often with the Philharmonia, I could not help but notice the playing of the viola section in particular. Mystery and tension in the minor mode were palpable. This seemed very much a precursor to the ‘slow’ movement of the Eighth, even though I am not sure that it actually ‘is’. The scherzo was sprightly without tending towards brutality, as too often it can (say, in the worst of Karajan). Its musical roots were in Haydn, whilst the Trio peered forward, more ‘modern’ in material and formal instantiation. The finale proved more brazen even than in Gielen’s hands. Yet it still had plenty of time to display woodwind charm and colour. It had space and impetus – which brings us to the second half.
Chin’s Le Chant des Enfants des Etoiles, jointly commissioned by the LOTTE Group and the Philharmonia, had received its world premiere in 2016 from the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myun-Whung Chung, to whom it is dedicated. Written for children’s choir (here the outstanding Trinity Boys Choir), mixed choir (Philharmonia Voices, also on excellent form) and large orchestra, it reflects and even perhaps, whatever her intention or not, ‘expresses’ the composer’s longstanding interest in physical cosmology, setting related poems from writers ranging from Henry Vaughan (roughly contemporary with Biber, be it noted), through Blake, Octavio Paz, Shelley, to Edith Södergran, Fernando Pessoa, Juan Ramón Rimenez, Eeva-Liisa Manner, and others. The approach is not so literal-minded as to set them chronologically, but the work itself seemed both to reprise the exploratory historical path announced in the first half and to take it further, in dialogue with and yet not bound by those poems. Tension builds and eventually subsides, perhaps not unlike the life in each of us, every one a piece of stardust – or even of a star itself.
There was no doubting Chin’s grateful writing for voices, nor the intelligibility of most of the words. When one could not immediately discern them, it seemed that that was the point – or at least that intelligibility was not the priority. I was put in mind from time to time of Britten’s ability to write for a range of performers, not all of them professionals, not that, a prominent harp solo notwithstanding, the music sounded like his. Insofar as I could tell, the singers relished their task; such, at any rate, was the performative impression. I wondered whether the earliest sections trod water a little, but perhaps that was more a matter of my ears and mind taking time to adjust; having looked at the score since, I could not tell you why. At any rate, once the shimmering stardust really took flight – at least in my ears – it never looked back. An almost Messiaenesque ecstasy – not as pastiche, yet in spirit – was to be felt as well as heard. An organ cadenza seemed to usher in a world of experimental Gothic Romanticism: Prometheus unbound, or Unbound? Bells, a battery (Biber?) of percussion, gorgeous harmonies took us to climax, prior to a retreat, or perhaps better a twilight, the trebles intoning ‘M’illumino d’immenso’ in the final ‘Matin’. Was this work, was the programme as a whole, more than the sum of its parts? I am not entirely sure, and why should I be, after a single hearing? I tend, however, to think so. I should love to hear both again, if not to find out, then to further my thoughts on the subject. For art, like cosmology, is surely there to broaden our horizons, to stimulate us, not to provide an answer, nor to be ‘correct’.