It is fairly rare to come across a programme that forms a clear, coherent unit without resorting to gimmicky themes or tenuous associations. So it was pleasing to hear the unobtrusive logic that bound together the LSO’s Sunday-evening programme at Barbican Hall of Bach (arr. Webern), Lachenmann and Brahms, a programme apparently conceived by pianist Maurizio Pollini, which can only count as yet another testament to his remarkable musicianship.
Webern’s arrangement of the Ricercar a 6 from The Musical Offering drapes Bach’s music with a richly Viennese sense of colour and, under the direction of Peter Eötvös, at times seemed to lilt and hesitate in an almost Romantic fashion. However, far from sinking into a blur, Webern’s orchestration produces a terrific clarity as the lines pass from instrument to instrument, the almost hyperactive colouration recedes from the foreground revealing the intricate contours of an older music. This is fiendishly hard music to play. Indeed, it made one wonder whether it might even be more difficult in some ways than the timbral complexities and extended techniques of the Lachenmann it preceded. To ensure a line sounds as one as it journeys through the ranks of players requires phenomenal ensemble playing and, while the LSO’s players could not always quite muster the unity this needs, they acquitted themselves honourably.
Lachenmann’s Double (Grido II) is a work for string orchestra premiered at the Lucerne Festival in 2005. It builds upon the framework of his Third String Quartet ‘Grido’ (2001), expanding gestures and thickening textures, but adhering surprisingly closely to its chamber-sized model. Strangely, the increased forces lacked some of the physical intensity that a string quartet can muster. The doublings present here tend to cancel out some of the more delicate colourations and bow position variations that are perceptible when performed by a single instrument. Acoustically, the doubling of pitched sounds has a much greater effect than the doubling of unpitched sounds, weakening the impact and, at certain points, the structural importance of certain unpitched and ‘noise’ elements, especially the tearing waves of scratchtones that form a climax mid-way through the work. Certain passages with minimal pitch variation, enlivened in the string quartet version by subtleties of sound, also seemed slightly aimless.
Perhaps it is foolish to compare the large with the small scale, but it seems difficult to avoid. However, the above excepted, this music has great beauty to offer and the LSO strings played it very well indeed. Having commenced work with Lachenmann in person in April, they demonstrated commitment, sensitivity and understanding of a piece riddled with moments of acoustic brilliance and inventiveness, only the occasional clatter of a hastily removed wooden mute disturbing the well-held atmosphere. In his programme note Richard Steinitz indicated how shocking it is that this performance was the first of Lachenmann’s music by a British symphony orchestra other than the BBC. For that to be the case — almost 40 years after the premiere of his spectacular early orchestral work Kontrakadenz and with more than a dozen other orchestral, concertante and large ensemble works written since — is an unfortunate situation, most of all for British audiences.
The concert ended with Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the evening’s mastermind, Maurizio Pollini, at the keyboard. Pollini is a pianist of great delicacy and restraint — see, for example, this video of him playing Chopin in a manner quite understated yet affecting — and this was evidenced in wonderful filigreed moments in the first movement, which he let flower effortlessly into weightless clouds. Slight weakness of sound at times suggest that, at 68, Pollini’s best years may sadly be behind him, but despite that and a fair few scrappy corners, there was great intensity in his playing. The finale was delightful, full of good humour and even joy. Add to that the vigour with which the orchestra approached this more familiar repertoire and the result was far from unenjoyable.
The LSO thoughtfully offer the programme notes for this concert for download here (PDF).