Monday, 16 September 2019

Coruscating: Leila Josefowicz in Colin Matthews with Simon Rattle & the LSO in an all-British opening concert including Emily Howard & William Walton

Colin Matthews: Violin Concerto - Leila Josefowicz, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle - Barbican Centre (Photo Mark Allan)
Colin Matthews: Violin Concerto - Leila Josefowicz, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle
Barbican Centre (Photo Mark Allan)
Emily Howard, Colin Matthews, William Walton; Leila Josefowicz, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle; Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 September 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Rattle and the LSO open the new season with an all-British programme, including a premiere, a further outing for Colin Matthew's fine violin concerto and Walton in prime form

It seems to be becoming a tradition that Sir Simon Rattle opens the London Symphony Orchestra's season with a concert of British music. On Saturday 14 September 2019, at the Barbican, Rattle and the LSO launched the 2019/20 season with the world premiere of Emily Howard's Antisphere (commissioned by the Barbican), Colin Matthew's Violin Concerto with soloist Leila Josefowicz and William Walton's Symphony No. 1. The evening was a significant anniversary, celebrating 20 years since the founding of LSO Live, the orchestra's highly successful own label.

An anti-spheres is a theoretical concept, the opposite of a sphere, where the surface everywhere curves away from the centre. A concept which brings ideas of infinity, shrinkage, distortion (think of an image projected onto the surface), and being of a scientific turn of mind, Emily Howard has found inspiration in these concepts for her new piece.

Written for large orchestra including triple woodwind, a very large body of strings and five percussion, it opened with a series of gestures dominated by the brass with noise of lots of bangy-things in the percussion.
Throughout the 20-minute piece, Howard's use of the orchestra crated a very distinctive sound-world full of interesting textures. She juxtaposed a series of gestures some long, some short, some loud, some quiet, some sharp, some sustained. There was something Nibelheim-like in the louder gesture whilst the quieter writing had a lovely sense of detail. The piece ended with a fearsome accelerando, ending with a percussive climax. But along the way there were moments when I wanted the piece to develop and take me on a journey, whereas Howard seemed content to explore the complex interaction of her various musical gestures.

Colin Matthews' Violin Concerto was premiered in September 2009 by Leila Josefowicz with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen, and Josefowicz has gone on to perform the work in Europe and the USA. Saturday's performance was a welcome London outing for a work which deserves maximum exposure. Impressively, Josefowicz played from memory, giving a vibrant, impassioned, highly dramatic and involved performance.

Matthews writes for quite a modest, classical-sized orchestra with the addition of harp, piano, bass clarinet, alto flute, three percussion and timpani. The concerto is in two movements, with the violin playing almost constantly, a stream of lyrically expressive movement.

The concerto started in media res with the violin holding a long, high note over spare but luxuriant orchestral textures and this developed into a high singing violin line, beautifully spun by Josefowicz, over fine almost soloistic orchestral detail. Gestures then became more urgent with soloist and orchestra creating elaborate webs of sound ending with some highly virtuoso playing from Josefowicz, and then the movement evaporated into the air.

The second, and final movement, had a series of violin gestures over a sustained orchestral accompaniment with a steady ticking in the percussion. This pulse became something of a feature of the movement, as the orchestral material developed into a steady throbbing sound supporting the violin's lyrical questing. At times, there was a hint of the slow blues about the music. And Josefowicz got her only real rest in the moments when the full orchestra re-iterated the opening material as punctuation for the violin's lyrical rhapsody. The resolution, if that is what it was, was fast and furious.

Josefowicz gave a coruscating performance, investing a lot of dramatic energy into the piece and she received fine, soloistic support from Rattle and the orchestra. Microphones (and cameras) were present in the hall, so I do hope that we will be seeing this performance on LSO Live.

There seems to have been something hard won about each of William Walton's symphonies. The promised third symphony never appeared at all, the second was commissioned in 1956 for the 750th anniversary of the granting of a charter of incorporation to Liverpool in 1957 but the symphony was only finally delivered in 1960. The first symphony, commissioned in 1932, famously received a premiere of the first three movements in 1934 before being performed in full almost a year later. There are various theories about why these hesitations, a problem with the form itself (Walton undoubtedly has less problems with other works), a general tendency to lassitude (as he got older Walton seemed to get slower), his emotional life during the 1930s (the ending of one long affair, the beginning of another), or simply the political situation in the 1930s. The partial premiere of the first symphony in 1934 has somewhat tarred it, and commentators continue to find the final movement 'a disappointment' [Andrew Clements' review of this concert in The Guardian refers to "the finale's Hollywood film-score rhetoric".]

Rattle and the LSO opened the 'Allegro assai' full of suppressed excitement, with tight detail in the strings and incredible articulation, the speed giving a sense of constant pressure forward. Some detail had a crisp edge that you could cut with a knife, but there was lyricism too, as well as some fierce rhythm. Whilst things did clear, for a fabulous bassoon solo, Rattle really screwed up the tension towards a series of intense climaxes. Terrific. The second movement scherzo, marked 'con malizia'. was again full of tight rhythms and crisp details. For all the beauty of tone and transparency of the sound, there was a real edge to this. The slow movement, marked 'con malinconia', was lyrical and achingly lovely, with a slow build towards a powerfully controlled climax. And the finally, well I have to confess that when I hear the opening I always think of Debussy's La mer! The detail was again crisp and vivid, with tight rhythms in the fugue, and then there were moments of relaxation but plenty of colour and movement towards the movements climax.

The concert was being videoed and will be available on the LSO's YouTube channel from 21 September, an indication of the way LSO Live is developing from simply creating CDs, and in fact streaming is now a big part of their business. We must be grateful that LSO Live started when it did, as they captured virtually all of Sir Colin Davis' terrific Berlioz performances with the LSO [see my article on the celebratory boxed set], not to mention the whole host of other fine performances now available.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Prom 74: Beethoven Night is Back: imaginative programming from Andrew Manze and NDR Radiophilharmonie, Hanover (★★★) - concert review
  • An interesting and illuminating mix: I chat to Ensemble Hesperi about combining Scottish Baroque music with Highland dance - interview
  • A listening challenge: Philippe Manoury's large-scale musical fresco for piano duo and electronics in a stunning performance (★★) - Cd review
  • A terrific place to start an exploration of Jonathan Dove's non-operatic output: Lawrence Zazzo, BBC Philharmonic, Timothy Redmond on Orchid Classics  (★★★) - CD review
  • A considerable company achievement: David Blake's Scoring a Century from British Youth Opera - Opera review
  • Prom 63: A 'nice mountain to climb', Yuja Wang, Dresden Staatskapelle, Myung-Whun Chung at the BBC Proms  (★★★) - concert review
  • To avoid being the sort of group which comes in, does a concert & goes away again: I chat to violinist David Le Page, artistic director of the Orchestra of the Swan - interview
  • The Late Romantic Violin: music by Vladigerov, Poulenc & Seaborne (★★★) - CD review
  • Prom 61: Ultimately, rather uninvolved - the Vienna Philharmonic in Dvořák and Korngold (★★★) - concert review
  • All was stylish & expressive, leaving us to enjoy the music & the comedy in such an engaging way that the time sped by: British Youth Opera in Rossini's La Cenerentola  - opera review
  • An unforgettable night: a true slice of history in the making: Bernard Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic & Emmanuel Ax at the BBC Proms (★★★) - concert review
  • A passionate evening: Bellini's I Capuleti ed I Montecchi  at Grimeborn (★★★) - opera review
  • Home

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