December 2, 2013 11:46 am

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

As the Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival reached 1977 two surprising composers emerged

After more than a generation it can still be difficult to say with any certainty which music will survive. The Southbank Centre’s year-long survey of 20th-century music entitled The Rest is Noise has reached the final decades of the century and is having to make some difficult choices for posterity.

By and large it has plumped for the music of two areas – Eastern Europe and the US (with a significant nod towards the UK). The previous concert featured Gubaidulina and Pärt, and those two voices from the east were followed in this programme by a pairing of Polish composers, Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Górecki.

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The two large-scale works – Penderecki’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 – both date from 1977. But if anybody had asked then which composers would be selected to represent their generation in 2013, would anybody have named this pair? It seems unlikely. It is only years later that hindsight has sifted through all the radical names and come up with composers who had a simple, strong message.

Opening with the trudging rhythms of marching feet, Penderecki’s concerto reeks of the grim, martial realities of the Soviet era. The composer clearly wanted to make sure that the political thrust of his music came through loud and clear, and the musical landscape – plaintive solo violin lines, crushing orchestral climaxes – is familiar, almost cinematic at times. The conductor, Michal Dworzynski, emphasised the music’s extremes and the concerto had an eloquent spokesman in Barnabás Kelemen, who played the solo part with a quiet intensity.

The Górecki symphony, subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, famously reached number six in the mainstream UK album charts in 1992. For almost an hour its hypnotically slow, repeated chords leave the audience to contemplate at leisure: the central focus is the setting of a heartfelt message inscribed by an 18-year-old girl on the wall of a Nazi prison. Allison Bell was the pensive, not-very- sweet-toned soprano; Dworzynski and the orchestra showed patience (not much else is needed). The London Philharmonic Orchestra will be offering the posthumous premiere of Górecki’s Symphony No. 4 next April and it will be interesting to see what message the composer has left us from beyond the grave.


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