A year may not seem long enough to do justice to a composer as multi-faceted as Igor Stravinsky. But judging by Saturday’s Royal Festival Hall concert — the last in the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey” series — it’s a bit too long. Not that there hasn’t been plenty to savour — in the colouristic mastery of the Russian composer’s early folk-inspired aesthetic, the ingenuity of his neoclassical works, and those he wrote after moving to Hollywood. No, the problem is that he left some of his least loveable music till last.
It was only in his late period — after 1950 — that he decided to give serialism a go. Schoenberg, founder of the movement, had just died and, despite the rift that had existed between the two composers, Stravinsky now believed the tradition was worth continuing. He put his own inimitable stamp on it, keeping his atonality free of Schoenbergian angst. But, as this concert demonstrated, that didn’t necessarily translate into music you’d listen to for pleasure.
Take the programme opener, the Variations. Stravinsky wrote this mathematically rigorous, austere work in 1963 in memory of his recently deceased friend, the English novelist Aldous Huxley, and admitted that even he probably wouldn’t have liked it. But at least it was short. The next piece on the programme, Threni: id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae, wasn’t. Written in 1957, this dense liturgical work contains some haunting moments, particularly in its vocal writing, competently performed here by the London Philharmonic Choir and soloists. But it’s hard to see how a piece of such plodding tempo and limited emotional range justifies its 35-minute duration.
Under Vladimir Jurowski, the LPO waded through both works as though it were a punishment. So it was a relief to see the rest of the programme make a departure from serialism. Stravinsky’s 1940 work Tango, featuring the smooth voices of the The Swingles, exuded the alluring scent of South America. It is interesting, however, that the main draw of the evening came from someone else altogether. That was Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia — a hectic collage of quotations from Mahler, Ravel and Beethoven among others. It’s a piece that can baffle and disorientate, but in this enthusiastic performance from the orchestra and The Swingles, it provided some much-needed vitality.
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