Difficult and sexy music from dark times; Webern, Berg, Bartok & Martinu at the Royal Festival Hall 27 April 2013

As part of the year long The Rest Is Noise festival, the London Philharmonic presented an evening of music written in the 1930s. This was music to reflect the experimentalism of the time and also the descending dark. Introducing the concert the conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, suggested it was one of the most difficult programs of the year for the orchestra, but sounded excited about the challenge. He advised not analysing but letting the music create its physical response in us. It did that, this was an amazing program matched with fantastic playing.
The first piece was Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30. This a later work but is still tied strictly to the 12 note serial technique. Not being a music scholar I have no choice but to let the music hit me without analysis. Music seems to spark from different areas of the orchestra, piling on note series demanding concentrated playing. The only recent thing it reminded me of was Keith Fullerton Whitman’s analog synth workout at Cafe Oto. Here though, was a an seventy year old piece that surprises with changes of tempo and a sound really does generate a physical response.
Next were extracts from Berg’s opera Lulu. The first symphonic part had elements of the romantic but overshadowed by a foreboding, possibly for the destruction and oppression to come in Europe. This was exciting enough but for the second part soprano Barbara Hannigan entered the stage looking all Jessica Rabbit in short fur coat and shorter dress. By now the music was a soundtrack to testosterone, like the lust filled wolf in Warner Brothers cartoons, eyes popping, tongue hanging out and heart pounding. Lulu sings of her value to men in her life and its meaning to her. The later song is Lulu’s lover at her death, declaring her eternal love. I’ve not seen the complete opera but I’ll be there when its done again, especially if Barbara Hannigan is singing.
I wondered how the second half would match this excitement. If anything it was even better. It began with Bartok’s Music for strings, percussion and celeste. Managing to combine rhythm with symphonic grace this music this was edge of the seat music, maintaining the physicality Jurowski hoped for.
Lastly was Martinu’s Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani. This was big, loud music but still able to maintain subtleties from the piano. The larger strings either side of the stage complemented the demanding percussion. At the finish the applause was deservedly resounding. Each element of the orchestra being given its turn by Jurowski. A fantastic evening’s music, give me more.

Dissonance and not dissonance, a thing of beauty – London Sinfonietta at Queen Elizabeth Hall, The Southbank Centre, Webern & the 2nd Viennese School, 29 January 2013

A couple of years ago I read Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise. Now the Southbank Centre have a year long festival based on the book. Everything 20th century and given some historical context. In nearly forty years of listening to music this would only be the second concert of classical music I’d attended but like a lot of live music I listen to now, I knew almost nothing about what I was to hear.
The first section was three songs by Webern, there would be three more rhymes later in the evening. They were written twenty years apart and the technically minded might hear differences in composition. What I heard was Sarah Gabriel’s beautiful and stunning voice. Where previously I have heard an abrasive language and little rhyme, here I just wanted her to keep singing. I’ve realised the words maybe important but I don’t want to be distracted reading, with singing like this I only need to listen.
There followed a series of pieces starting with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. My little knowledge of this style suggested it would be atonal and jarring. Maybe in 1909 it was but despite the supposed dissonance in many of the pieces what I hear are dissonant notes complementing each other. The music flows and drives beautifully. The idea of dissonance is a red herring, every note connects, it felt like connecting was a theme of the evening.
The shorter Six Pieces for Orchestra of Webern’s I found contemplative. Although more percussive, these instruments were used more to create mood and expression rather than rhythm. The last pieces before the break created a dilemma for me. Despite my desire to hear things I not heard before I found myself wanting to hear Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra every day.
After the interval was Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21; this was stunning. Each note felt individual, not a typical musical flow yet every sound interconnected. Berg was represented by his Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op. 5. This was the highlight of the evening. A flurry of clarinet notes creating space. Each piece urging onto musical sounds that felt like daylight.
Three Small Pieces for cello and piano were exactly as described. The last is labelled Extremely Quiet. If you were there and saw the bloke in a black shirt clapping only gently it was due to fear of disturbing the incredible atmosphere of the music.
The final piece, Webern’s Concerto for nine instruments felt like a culmination and summation of all that had gone before. This is music that continues to surprise and enchant with its art and beauty. The philosophy and techniques of the 2nd Viennese School was not simply a new way of composing, it created stunning art and gripping music.