Mark-Anthony Turnage and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Harding, have thoroughly dominated this week in the Barbican Hall. Firstly with a high-profile performance of the composer’s trumpet concerto From the Wreckage on Tuesday, and then the first performance of his new, purely orchestral piece Speranza on the Thursday. One of his longest concert works to date at 45 minutes, it is also one of his most symphonic. In five movements – four of which are of slow or moderate tempo – it has at its core an angry Scherzo which is one of the bleakest musical utterances I have heard for some time, despite its rhythmic games and colourful percussion.
The overall impression of the piece defies its title, Speranza, Italian for hope. All five movements are also entitled “hope” in different languages. Instead of hope, one is left with a resolute sense of loss and mourning. The composer’s interest in the writings of the Jewish-Romanian Paul Celan, whose belief that the effects of the traumas he experienced in the Holocaust could only be survived and processed through the medium of poetry, seems to have shaped the piece into a document of suffering. The “speranza” he seems to be pointing towards is the simple act of surviving and being able to tolerate the pain of continuing. Turnage does not attempt to take us on a conventional symphonic journey from darkness into light. As such, it is one of the most “hopeless” documents in British music since Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony furiously rejected optimism in the troubled 1930s.
Musically, the work is full of subtle orchestral colours, is harmonically conservative, and has numerous melodic riches. At this point in his career, Turnage has the technical assurance to conjure up a vast range of colouristic effects from his orchestra. He’s also not afraid to use a rich and romantic palette, and harmonies which at times sound like an intense film score from the 1950s or 60s. Most of the melodic material he uses derives from folksong, much of it Jewish or Middle Eastern, emphasizing the link to the Holocaust. Turnage often presents this simple melodic material on an odd-sounding Armenian instrument called the duduk to create a mournful, rustic quality. He then sets about rigorously developing this material and creating a complex tapestry of sound. Each of the movements has a clear sense of its form and never outstays its welcome.
As I was listening to this exemplary first performance of Speranza I felt that here was a piece that should enter the repertoire of major orchestras across the world. It has all the right ingredients to be enjoyed by a large audience, despite its generally mournful character. It made me feel how nice it would be if there were more composers finding a musical tone and language that could find them a place in concert programming and save us from endless performances of Mahler and Shostakovich, which can end up as too much of a good thing. The mainstream repertoire needs enriching; it needs to grow if it is going to survive at all.
Daniel Harding and the LSO started the evening with a work that should also be heard more often, The Oceanides by Sibelius. Indeed, all the symphonic poems of Sibelius are now sadly neglected in the concert hall. The Oceanides is a work of great beauty and textural originality, using the orchestra to create an almost nausea-inducing impression of the sea. This seamless performance particularly showed off the wonderful velvety quality of the LSO strings.
In his performance of the Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3, Lars Vogt took a very romantic and emphatic view of the work. My least favourite of the five Beethoven concertos, it seems to me a work caught in no man’s land, between the formal and polite world of the 18th century and the romantic, impulsive world of the 19th. It’s up to the performer to decide how to reconcile this dichotomy and to cover up the occasional longueurs in the first two movements. Early in the first movement Vogt did seem slightly tentative, but once he’d got his teeth into the tremendous cadenza, he seemed in no doubt about the tone of his performance. In the finale, his forceful style paid dividends – and in the dazzling C major coda he revelled in the cloudless hope that Beethoven finds and that so eluded Turnage.