Well, we’re up and running! September is upon us, summer festivals have finished, new seasons are starting. Leading the charge for the London Symphony Orchestra in the post-Rattle era, Associate Artist Barbara Hannigan, the perennial explorer, opened the season in true non-conformist style with a daring programme of struggles from darkness to light playing right into the hands of her philosophy to “really go inside the music and the character... I want to hear all the nitty-gritty”. This was no time for feeling cosy – this was urgent and stirring stuff.

Barbara Hannigan
© LSO | Mark Allan

To ease us edgily into Hannigan’s ingenious tableaux, where the traditional overture was but a distant memory, Ligeti’s Ramifications saw two groups of strings tuned a quarter tone apart trying to ‘retune’ each other, seeking lightness out of dark. The hazy lustre of the LSO strings, under Hannigan’s gently guiding hand, fluttered nervously in layers of icy delicacy, occasionally bursting out in violent splashes before ending with a feathery wisp, all done in a few minutes.

Regarded by Ligeti as “the most important and original composer of his generation”, spectralist composer Claude Vivier is nevertheless still rarely performed, but his electrifying Wo bist du Licht? (Where are you, light?) makes the case in striking fashion. This “meditation on human suffering” for mezzo-soprano, strings, percussion and recorded tape projects themes of conflict, disaster and hope, all framed by Vivier’s imaginative West-meets-East musical style and drawing on gamelan and Balinese influences in the instrumentation. 

Fleur Barron
© LSO | Mark Allan

Crashing drum beats and white noise gently subsided into deceptive simplicity and suspended time, while the exciting and charismatic mezzo Fleur Barron lent her rich tone, creating a haunting and immersive vocal experience, complete with extended techniques, adventurously matched by other-worldly orchestral harmonics and textures. But the search for light continued.

Maybe we’d find it in Haydn? Not exactly. His Symphony no. 26 in D minor, “Lamentatione”, one of his earliest Sturm und Drang symphonies, exhibited more than a touch of darkness with its restless exploration of minor keys. Hannigan’s podium choreography demonstrated her sense of drama as she drew out instrumental interplays, allowing the orchestra’s citrus sheen, cleansing and sharp, to win through, with a warm melting moment of reprieve in the slow movement.

Barbara Hannigan conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
© LSO | Mark Allan

Under a single spotlight, Hannigan opened the second half with the second of Luigi Nono’s ‘songs of life and love’, Djamila Boupacha for solo soprano, reflecting the struggle from oppression to freedom. Hannigan’s pinpoint accuracy with Nono’s carefully placed notes, wide intervals and angular melodic lines was not only technically brilliant, but provided an intense and highly expressive reading. Ending with “the light must come” – and without a break – Hannigan turned to face the orchestra for the last hours of a dying man in Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. Swathes of lush strings and surges of power created genuine depth, the woodwinds and brass quite spectacular, and the entire orchestra unashamedly committed, as Hannigan’s troubled search came to an end with light finally and resplendently emerging from the dark.