The quest for hope in the face of extreme suffering is something many artists of the past 100 years have struggled to express – and now, with his latest and biggest orchestral work, Mark-Anthony Turnage has joined their number. A five-movement sequence that demonstrates the 52-year-old composer’s mastery of orchestration, Speranza represents a formidable achievement of imagination and organisation, and gives audience and musicians plenty to get their teeth into, while falling short of the progressive symphonic masterpiece Turnage is surely capable of. At this first hearing, played by the London Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding, it came across as old-fashioned in ambition and design. Could this be because extreme suffering is something Turnage’s generation have come to view from a distance rather than first-hand?
The problem with Speranza lies not so much in its 50-minute length and cyclical design as its overweight philosophical tone. All five movements are titled “hope” in a different language, which has inspired Turnage to draw on Arab and Jewish folksong and give a prominent role to the Armenian duduk, a mystical-sounding wind instrument. But the mood throughout is unremittingly sombre: even the central scherzo morphs from an angst-ridden swing-song into a feverish dance of death. The quirkiest music comes in the fourth movement, where Turnage overlays a moody urban dawnscape with ghostly creaking noises.
The tunes, generously shared and diversified round the various orchestral sections, help to lighten to load, but they are all drawn from the same family – sobbing, wailing, grieving – which suggests Turnage could have cut the number of movements by at least one without damaging the work’s integrity. An innocently reflective motif for two violins, reminiscent of Butterworth’s English Idylls, frames the finale, which evolves into a great hymn, but even it is overwhelmed by the depressive hopelessness suffusing the rest of the score.
This is Turnage’s Tragic Symphony – Mahlerian in scale, orchestration and mixture of cosmic and quotidian. It might resonate better at a time of national mourning, though its playability should guarantee many more outings than that. The LSO, which commissioned it, performed creditably, even when the sheer size of the canvas posed problems of co-ordination.