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Webern, Berg, Bartók, and Martinů

LPO/Jurowski/Barbara Hannigan

27 April 2013 Royal Festival Hall

Webern – Variations for Orchestra, op.30 Berg – Lulu-Suite
Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta Martinů – Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani

A thought provoking concert which brought back to attention Webern's rarely given brief Variations, introduced by the conductor with a talk twice its length.

Its carefully honed musical phrases were isolated with silences which focused attention and thought; most striking were the instrumental juxtapositions. Its beauties were listened to by a large Festival Hall audience in rapt attention.

It would have been good to have heard it twice, as used to be common practice with difficult novelties, which this would have been for nearly everyone there! Hear it on YouTube.

We had been urged to forget about the dodecaphony there and in the fragmentary Berg suite. The orchestral music of his trailer-excerpts from Berg's opera sounded rich taken up out of an opera pit, but it frustrated, for the second time recently, my desire to hear again, live, one of my favourite sopranos (last time I went to the RFH to hear Barbara Hannigan, in this The Rest is Noise series, she but spoke in Satie and conducted Stravinsky) ! She got the sort of applause customary for singers - and no doubt a commensurate fee; but the orchestral players bore the brunt, including notably the saxophonist Martin Robertson (especially important to Berg, as Jurowski told us).

Far more involving were the double concertos commissioned by Paul Sacher from Bartók (1936) & Martinů (1938 - 1940, under threat of war), the two rarely if ever before performed in sequence.

Bartók's, labelled Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (surely never meant to be a title ?) is always fascinating, but tricky in live performance. The piano sounded muted in effect (always helped by engineers in recordings and likely to be in the forthcoming recording/broadcast suggested by the forest of a dozen microphone at RFH); the celesta adds occasional colour but one is always primed to expect more from it.

The big surprise and success of the concert was Martinů's Double Concerto, long neglected, which sounded louder than Bartók's even tough bereft of wind and brass and brought the concert to a rousing climax and ovation. The juxtaposition of the two halves of this concert suggested to this listener that dodecaphony is likely to recede to but an interesting experiment in history (who even with the sharpest ears can tick off aurally the twelve notes of the chromatic octave and realise that we are then ready to hear one of them again as permitted by Schónberg...) ?

Peter Grahame Woolf

See and hear Barbara Hannigan in Richard Ayres' mountain melodrama In the Alps, which thrilled us in 2010.