If you want to avoid controversy, don’t mention politics or religion. That is generally true. Yet the reverse holds good when it comes to artistic inspiration or the way resulting creations can themselves influence the course of events. A performance of Auber’s opera La Muette de Portici (also called Masaniello) in 1830 led to serious riots which in turn triggered the formation of the country we now call Belgium.

Edward Gardner conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Wagner knew a thing or two about politics. He was part of the pre-revolutionary stream of nationalist sentiment in the 1840s, though there’s little sign of that in his overture to Tannhäuser. In this performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner, with the antiphonal layout familiar to the composer, there was no Gothic murk for the sombre beginning. Individual string lines were kept clean and supple; the moments of exuberance were suitably rendered. However, balances were not always ideal. Clarinets and bassoons in the opening statement were dominated by the horns. Far more serious was the way trombones were allowed to obliterate the other voices: nobility is not something that comes through force. 

Political and socio-economic concerns were very much to the fore in the world premiere of Vijay Iyer’s Human Archipelago, at least on the face of it. In a programme note, the composer referred to “the entangled processes of climate change and migration, and the societal imbalances that are both their cause and their result”. The work makes use of a fairly large orchestra, but with reduced strings, as well as a concertante group of five players who formed a semi-circle with the soloist, Inbal Segev, around the conductor. 

It is quite eclectic, drawing on minimalist rhythms at the start, including tender and rhapsodic passages which reminded me of Bloch’s Schelomo, and jazz-infused passages for full orchestra. There were moments of ear-catching delicacy, the soft strings contrasted with gentle woodwind flourishes and additional splashes of colour from the percussion. These were particularly affecting in the last of the three run-on movements, where the material is passed between the soloist, the concertante group, individual instruments such as the harp, and larger sections of the orchestra. Earlier, the orchestration was at times quite dense, submerging the cello line, and Segev’s robust and earthy tone was only displayed to full advantage in the first movement cadenza. Overall, the material which Iyer employs doesn’t quite cohere as a vehicle for his stated ambition of bringing people together. Is this music likely to stir the emotions of Extinction Rebellion? I rather think not.

Inbal Segev
© Grant Legan

How do you like your Mendelssohn to be played, especially the Symphony no. 5 in D major, “Reformation” which makes use of religious inspiration? In a pre-concert address, Gardner strove to underline the influence of Mendelssohn on Wagner in terms of sweeping lyricism and fairy-like delicacy. I’m not persuaded that the conductor made this connection palpable. There was a distinctly lean and spare feel to the playing of this symphony, underlined by the reduced number of strings pared back to four double basses, together with minimal use of vibrato, and this period quality was heightened by hard-sticked timpani, often quite inappropriately ferocious, not least in the deafening roll at the end of the Andante.

Coming in at just 26 minutes, the entire symphony was brisk, with an admittedly thrilling coda to the con fuoco close of the first movement, and the LPO gave their chief everything he demanded of them. But with the rather clipped endings of phrases, and a martial quality colouring the forceful brass in the Finale, this was often charmless and devoid of the majesty the work ultimately deserved.