Some pieces of music steal themselves gently into a state of being, others erupt with unbridled energy. Some concert seasons commence conventionally, others with an arresting freshness. In launching the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s new season with Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements Thomas Adès clearly began as he meant to go on. This was an evening of high-voltage music, the three programmed works resembling siblings fashioned out of the same DNA, so that by its close a sense of atomic particles constantly colliding with one another was inescapable.

Thomas Adès © Brian Voce
Thomas Adès
© Brian Voce

Stravinsky himself referred to this 20-minute work, a further instalment in the LPO’s year-long focus on the composer’s changing faces, as his “war symphony”. Influenced by the newsreels of wartime atrocities that he had seen, it is undeniably cinematographic in origin. From the whiplash start, with gleaming brass, gurgling wind and throbbing strings, held together very tautly by Adès, the first movement maintained its militant and march-like character, one anguished cry following another, the piano nicely emphasising the angularity of the scoring. And then, in the following Andante, after so much tumult the ear craved a lessening of the astringency. Here there wasn’t quite enough elasticity in the pulse, and despite, or perhaps as a result of, needle-sharp playing from his orchestra, Adès seemed unwilling to dispel the cliché of a po-faced composer. In the final Con moto movement there was once again an olamic edge to the orchestral textures, the lower strings producing piston-like precision at its conclusion.

Starting a symphony with a series of explosive punctuation marks is not exactly new – Beethoven had already shown the way with his Eroica. In that regard the start of Lutosławski’s Third Symphony is hardly much of a surprise. But the way in which the composer uses a four-note motto consisting of E naturals, spat out initially by woodwind and brass, over wide stretches of the first movement, is a novel and appropriately cohesive device for drawing the material together. Often described as an example of this composer’s “controlled aleatorism” (a rather formal term for the random element in which Lutosławski shakes up his ideas within a musical kaleidoscope and waits for them to settle and realign), there is a danger in allowing the many individual episodes to flit past like so many disparate moving images. Happily, at a fairly brisk basic tempo, Adès brought an almost chamber-like delicacy to the more lightly-scored passages, while allowing the moments of explosive and dramatic power to make their full mark. As the final pages of this work approached and the long string lines unfolded with a new-found lyrical intensity, deep and tonally resplendent, the staggered entries of the entire orchestra ushering in the final coda produced a cumulative force which returned the music to its elemental origins.

Sandwiched between these two examples of protean energy from the past century, lay the conductor’s own demonstration of galvanic force in his In Seven Days, premiered a decade ago in a version to include a video installation (which I certainly didn’t miss). Whether you are a creationist or an adherent of the Big Bang Theory, there is an acceptance that huge amounts of energy must have been involved in the process itself. The descriptions for the seven sections of the work – corresponding to the seven-day biblical act of creation – are not especially helpful, since the ear is constantly bombarded with a never-ending flood of inventiveness. At one stage it is as if a mighty movement from great subterranean depths is surging upwards, throwing up jets of furious energy, steam hissing from all the fissures. The use of 16 handbells is highly suggestive of the inner workings of a forge or smithy (surely not the only backward reference to Wagner) in which further material is being busily moulded. These two instances demonstrate why In Seven Days is as much a concerto for orchestra – it is full of opportunities for individual instruments and whole sections to showcase their virtuosity and display riotous colour – as it is a piano concerto. This is in no way to understate the scintillating role that Kirill Gerstein played as commentator and narrator on the material being thrown up by the orchestra, and the cascades of notes from the piano echoing the teeming profusion of ideas in the orchestra were neatly replicated in Gerstein’s encore, the second of the composer’s Three Mazurkas.

In short, this work is an extraordinarily compelling bit of creation itself, magnificently played here by the LPO. It shines and glitters, but it also hisses, spits, shrieks and growls. The music repeatedly shudders and shivers, throwing up walls of storm-tossed sound. And then, ever so suddenly, it is all over. Adès clearly sees creation not as linear, but cyclical. Like music itself, it is wrapped up in a constant process of regeneration and renewal.

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