Debussy, Wagner and Scriabin: erotic, sensual, rapturous. With such repertoire on the programme, how could the London Philharmonic Orchestra give such oddly dispassionate performances? While the première of Magnus Lindberg's Accused: three interrogations for soprano and orchestra, a rich and striking work, was sensitive and powerful, the other works (especially those by Debussy and Wagner) lacked magic.

Barbara Hannigan © Elmer de Haas
Barbara Hannigan
© Elmer de Haas

The première of Magnus Lindberg's Accused is certainly timely. Setting extracts of a trial dating from the French Revolution, an interrogation under Stasi rule and the proceedings against Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, the central themes are those of freedom of speech and thought, and of the individual against the state. Lindberg has rarely ventured into the realm of song, making this work all the more significant – this is his first work to feature a solo voice.

In the programme, Lindberg explains that melody has little place in his musical thinking. The challenge of the soprano part was gamely taken by Barbara Hannigan; standing within the orchestra, her part was more akin to that of an instrument than of a voice. Displaying her impressive range and technical assurance with disjunct lines and large leaps, Lindberg's approach can best be characterised as that of a concerto, in which the individual is pitted against an opposing group. While the technical capacities of the soloist were certainly tested, this was a consequence of the interaction between the two forces: the texts were set almost as dramatic scena, with Hannigan taking the roles of both interrogator and accused.

Lindberg's open, resonant harmonies created momentum, driving the piece onwards as the sense of unease mounts. These are masterfully orchestrated, and the LPO certainly did the writing justice, with the final bell-like chord acquiring a golden glow. The brass particularly shone in terrifying fanfare interjections; while solo woodwind contributions were no less characterful (especially the biting piccolo figures of the third movement).

As the Kafka-esque interrogations of the texts progressed, tensions (both harmonic, and between soloist and orchestra) mounted and the sense of horror grew. This was particularly the case with the lengthy third movement, in which the interrogator poses questions to which he seems to know the answers. The extract ceases abruptly, to chilling effect. Even the final passage (“a vocalise to freedom”) did not comfort: despite the apparent optimism of the chiming bells, the elegiac trombone and the oscillation of the harmonies between ecstatic and tormented left the piece somewhat ambiguous. A complex work which would reward multiple hearings, Accused provides an interesting solution to the orchestral song genre.

Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune was actually a substitution: originally, the concert would have contained Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien by the same composer. Thematically, the Prelude supplemented the sensuality of the second half; in performance, it lacked the magic which makes it so special. Vladimir Jurowski was intent on pushing forwards, to almost clinical effect; clear-cut precision was privileged over flexibility and fluidity. The directness of the orchestra's sound is usually an asset, but here a softer edge was definitely needed. The thin string sound certainly didn't help to create Debussy's dream-like world, and neither did sour solos from the principal clarinet.

The LPO's taut, muscular sound was also unsuitable for the Prelude to Act 1 of Tristan and Isolde. Jurowski opted for urgency over tension and longing, sacrificing voluptuousness for drama. With the brass oddly forward in the texture, this interpretation of the Prelude was almost spirited. Despite a lovely, lyrical solo from principal cellist Kristina Blaumane, the piece ultimately felt hurried.

Jurowski set a much more sensual mood for The Poem of Ecstasy, drawing a warm sound from the LPO while retaining definition. A more malleable tempo made all the difference, creating excitement from the contrast between languorous moments and brilliant eruptions. Even though it finished in style, with an immense wall of sound, one couldn't help but be left with the sense that the LPO had remained somewhat detached.