Spring, for many of us, is a time of rejuvenation. Shoots poke their heads above the ground, colour finally appears after the cold and dark winter, and occasional glimpses of sunlight raise our spirits. In Greek mythology, this is all down to Persephone, Goddess of Spring and Queen of the Underworld. The story goes that Persephone’s annual descent into the Underworld brought the winter months, while her return to earthly living brought the spring, thus establishing the cycle of the seasons.

Thomas Adès © Brian Voce
Thomas Adès
© Brian Voce

Stravinsky’s re-telling of the Persephone myth uses a French text by novelist and poet André Gide, where Persephone’s destiny was not the result of being forcibly abducted, as in the original setting, but one of free will brought about by her compassion for human souls and the Shades of the Underworld. Elliott Carter described the piece as “the humanistic rite of spring”. Stravinsky wrote Perséphone as a “melodrama” for tenor solo, female narrator, chorus, children’s chorus and orchestra (and originally with dancers), and although this has been a rather neglected work, it has started to gain traction in recent years. 

In this performance, under Thomas Adès’ baton, the London Philharmonic Orchestra played precisely, sensitively and with versatility, with just a few ragged moments later on, and with Adès carefully shaping and controlling proceedings with a flowing continuity. Toby Spence had character and poise as the priest Eumolpus, while, in an inspired bit of casting, actress and fluent French speaker Dame Kristin Scott Thomas was expressive and wistful as the narrator Persephone. This was a refined and rounded Stravinsky, where Adès skilfully balanced the calming influence of the choral writing against the composer’s more jagged orchestral colourings. Fine nuances were created, with gentle understated punctuations and ghostly soporific effects, and a well-balanced sepulchral sound from the London Philharmonic Choir and Trinity Boys Choir, all pulled together impressively by Adès to create a cohesive and rather inspiring narrative.

Gerald Barry, a former pupil of Stockhausen, is a composer with a core of granite. His Organ Concerto was given its London première with the impressive Thomas Trotter as soloist, and although it was not obvious that it was a concerto at all, with so much going on across the combined forces, Barry’s stark and uncompromising style gave the piece an edge-of-the-seat anxiety, mixing his bold soundscape with humour and a healthy dose of intrigue. This mischievous side also provided a marked contrast to occasional fraught and demonic passages culminating in nightmarish blankets of sound, with some particularly effective layering where moments of rapid activity were played over slow sustained chords. The stillness of a solitary bell chiming evoked Barry’s childhood experiences of quiet reflection, and his fondness for metronomes materialised in a chorus of 21 of the devices ticking chaotically. In essence, the piece is a tribute to the harmonium Barry played in his youth, with the instrument also making a cameo appearance late on in the work, framed around a battle between tonality and atonality and employing a striking array of techniques and textures across both organ and orchestra.

One of today’s most accomplished composers, Adès broke new ground when his opera Powder Her Face first appeared in 1995. The opera is based on the notoriety and sexual scandal surrounding the Duchess of Argyle, and Adès’ 2017 orchestral suite, which opened the concert, given its UK première under the composer’s baton, was the result of revisions made to his original suite written ten years earlier. This was a performance full to the brim of the decadence pervading Adès’ lavish score, from the wailing woodwinds and melting notes of the tango Overture to the spiky, disjointed Waltz and the fiendishly complex interactions towards the end. Adès and the superb LPO blazed a trail through incandescent outbursts and reflective sobriety, showing sardonic wit and a measure of poignancy and, at times, a real sense of the Duchess’ world collapsing and disintegrating around her.

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