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The Southbank Centre’s “The Rest is Noise” festival has come to the difficult bit. Proceeding chronologically through the history of music in the 20th century, it has reached the 1980s, beyond the lifespans of major figures like Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten, and programmes have to be chosen carefully so as not to lose the audience overboard.
One of the themes for this period is “Politics and Spirituality”. The spiritual side puts the focus on those composers, mostly from eastern Europe, who saw what the minimalists were doing in the US and wanted to turn the same simplicity to more numinous ends – people such as Galina Ustvolskaya and Henryk Górecki.
Wednesday’s concert took us to the heart of that movement. Coming from Tatarstan, where east meets west, Sofia Gubaidulina was the epitome of the new voices appearing at that time. Her Offertorium of 1981 is a violin concerto, but not as we know it. It starts with a quotation from Bach, as though the work will be a homage to the western musical tradition, but quickly takes the short theme apart note by note, exploring it, exploding it, sending it into space like a firework, until 40 minutes later the music affirms its Soviet-era roots when it settles into a threnody that might have come from Shostakovich. Sergei Krylov was the intense violinist and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Tõnu Kaljuste made much of the extreme orchestral contrasts.
In Arvo Pärt the movement has its high priest. Pärt’s spare, mystical music is slow-moving next to almost any other, and after Gubaidulina’s restless Offertorium time seemed to stand still. Kaljuste offered three of Pärt’s best-known works. The Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977) turns a string orchestra into sombre, pealing bells. In the very simple Magnificat and the Berlin Mass of 1990 the London Philharmonic Choir sang with a notable delicacy for a choral group of its size. This was a programme with no obvious sweeteners and it was good to see a well-filled hall. The year-long “Rest Is Noise” format must have captured the public imagination.