Saturday 17 October 2015

Ramgobin/Melos Sinfonia/Zeffman - Zisser, Mahler, and Beethoven, 16 October 2015

Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s

Na’ama Zisser – Space melts like sand running through fingers (world premiere)
Mahler – Rückert-Lieder
Beethoven – Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

Ross Ramgobin (baritone)
Melos Sinfonia
Oliver Zeffman (conductor)

An excellent concert from the Melos Sinfonia, opening with the world premiere performance of Na’ama Zisser’s Space melts like sand running through fingers, its title taken from a book by George Perec, the starting point, according to the composer, ‘the way in which we remember spaces that are close to us, and how these change in our memory over time’. That made sense when one heard the short, mostly quiet piece, helping to structure one’s listening.  Opening with just strings, other instruments joined, creating a sound that initially suggested minimalism, but soon became harmonically more interesting than that. Shards, clusters came and went, not unlike, at least on the surface, the Ligeti of Lontano, although without its extremes (or its huge orchestra). Perhaps there was a little neo-Romanticism to be heard too.

Ross Ramgobin, whose work I admired more than once at the Royal Academy, joined the orchestra for Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. First came ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’. Oliver Zeffman drew from the orchestra a bright, magical sound at its opening, Ramgobin singing his part with Italianate legato and excellent German diction. ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ was taken urgently, with less emphasis upon the legato line and more upon the way the words inform the vocal line: quite an appropriate distinction to have made between the two songs. The sense of orchestral magic remained. A more Romantic sound was to be heard from the Melos Sinfonia in ‘Liebst du am Schönheit,’ as orchestrated by Max Puttmann, Ramgobin reverting to a more aria-like style. Darkness was the hallmark of both vocal and orchestral performance in ‘Um Mitternacht. Ramgobin’s powerful, somewhat operatic delivery was matched by resplendent brass. ‘Ich bin der Welt abhandedn gekommen’ was placed last, ideally paced, the vocal line imbued with but not overburdened by meaning. Some especially beautiful woodwind playing and a nice piece of closing violin portamento were not the least of the instrumental delights. There then came quite a surprise: as a nod to Frank Sinatra’s centenary, an encore performance of I’ve got you under my skin. Both orchestra (luscious string vibrato and all) and soloist sounded quite in their element, as if this were their staple fare.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony offers an altogether sterner sort of test, of course, one I am happy to say was handled very well indeed. The introduction to the first movement offered a near-ideal blend of spaciousness and forward motion, attack and precision, with excellent balance too. Zeffman handled the transition to the exposition very well, Beethoven’s harmony doing just the work it should, and ensured the exposition itself was lively without being harried. Rhythm was not treated, as too often it is, as something that stands alone, although it retained a very strong force all the same.  There was highly commendable clarity too; this is clearly a conductor who cares for balance. The development seemed over all too quickly, the composer’s concision apparent for all to hear, and there was true mystery to the recapitulation, even before that coda. The Allegretto was clearly, cleanly articulated, without sacrifice to its essential mystery. Zeffman’s tempo was quick (at least for my taste) yet convincing. Initial low string vibrato proved a tool of expression rather than of dogma, permitting the section’s music to blossom thereafter – and how it did! There was consolation to be heard too, as well as icy chill, from the wind. The scherzo was vigorous, very fast, but never sounding too fast. Zeffman allowed the trio to relax considerably, at least by fashionable standards, and thus to evince true grandeur. It was only in the finale that I occasionally felt myself a little out of sympathy – but then I have felt the same even with Bernard Haitink. Here I missed a more malleable approach to tempo, seemingly wedded as I am to performances such as those of Furtwängler and Barenboim. On its own terms, however, the performance remained mightily impressive, with truly commanding playing and conducting. Zeffman’s insistence on a rock-solid tempo was, moreover, relaxed towards the close, with an accelerando of which either of those favoured conductors of mine might have approved. Joy, then, was quite rightly the overriding sentiment to the close.