The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest “only connect” programme was inspired by its allocated date – 12/12/12. An equivalent numerical repetition will not recur for another century. Furthermore the reversal of the first figure to 21 coincides with the day signalled by the Mayan calendar as a day of ending. In keeping with this apocalyptic vantage point, Gérard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (“Four Chants for Crossing the Threshold”, 1996–98) and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 (1901–02) were paired to map a journey from the dark abyss into a bright awakening.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall © Richard Cannon
The London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall
© Richard Cannon

The success of this programme hinged not only on its performance but also on the time taken by conductor Vladimir Jurowski to explain such connections in detail to his audience. He took particular care to establish a context for Grisey’s Quatre chants, as several members of the audience had no doubt grown faint after spotting the word “IRCAM” in Grisey’s biography. That Grisey had died suddenly of a ruptured aneurism in 1998 after composing this “meditation on death” is tragically ironic: the composer had, in effect, prepared his own swansong. By contrast, Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 rages against its opening “Trauermarsch” (“Funeral March”) with vigorous energy until its materials dilate to encompass the tender expressivity of the Adagietto and the generous exuberance of the Rondo-Finale.

Grisey’s captivating monodrama for soprano and fifteen players was given a posthumous première at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1999. Using texts from Christian, Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotanian sources, the composition charts “The Death of the Angel”, “The Death of Civilisation”, “The Death of the Voice” and “The Death of Humanity”, each separated by mercurial interludes. Under Jurowski’s direction on Wednesday night, however, this work was alive with volatile energy. The “spectralist” approach to composition that Grisey pioneered during the 1980s and 90s focused upon computerized inspections of the spectral properties of different instruments. His investigations clearly had implications for Quatre chants, a work in which soprano and ensemble visit an array of unorthodox sonorities that allow them to interact liberally with one another.

Soprano Allison Bell’s affinity with this repertoire was felt not only in her excellent vocal performance, but also in her attire. Her diagonal ebony fringe and black dress (evocative of an ancient Ionic column) assisted our awareness of the singer as an abstract presence in Grisey’s turning wheel of meditation. As subliminal breathing notes grew from the hall’s ambience, meandering melodic lines then gave way to the first chant, based on the text “The Hours of Night” by Christian Guez Ricord. Here the soprano contemplates the art of dying “like an angel” using a narrow compass of inflections and intoning the word “ange” against mutating sonic material. With the second chant we were taken through “The Death of Civilisation”: a collection of fragmented funeral inscriptions from the Egyptian Sarcophagi of the Middle Kingdom that occasioned a visceral orchestration of low pitches as the voice delivered its devastating messages. The third chant provided a window for the soprano to blossom lyrically in response to the Greek poetess Erinna of Telos’ words “The voice spreads in the shadow”. Finally, we witnessed an exchange of percussive gestures that signalled the reduction of mankind to clay and the dawning of a new humanity as told in the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. Bell’s performance across these movements was precise and intelligent: combined with Jurowski’s eloquent direction this made for an exquisite rendition of a modern masterpiece.

Jurowski’s dealings with 20th-century and contemporary repertoire lent his interpretation of Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 considerable sophistication. Instead of the easy characterisation of Mahler as an indulgent late-Romantic, we were presented with Mahler as the proto-modernist: a perspective that engendered an enigmatic delivery of this enshrined work. Like Grisey, Mahler had suffered a severe haemorrhage in 1901 but fortunately he survived. This symphony grew from a period of regeneration in Mahler’s life, a period in which he found hope and companionship through his marriage to Alma Schindler. The music traces an erratic narrative from the stormy confines of Part 1, during which themes and mottos are wrenched to and fro before dissolving into ghostly purrs on the timpani, to the euphoric horn solos and capricious waltzes of Part 2 (the long central Scherzo), to the amorous Adagietto of Part 3. This latter movement, styled by the composer as a “declaration of love” for Alma, can easily become sentimental. Yet, under Jurowski’s baton it emerged as a fragile and fleeting construction: one that fully embraced the music’s history of painstaking revision and the beautiful yet precarious experience of love that coloured the composer’s life thereafter.

The exhilarating Rondo that followed was a tour de force of virtuosity and playful dialogue, most effectively crowned by the sight of smashed cymbals quivering from the back of the stage. This was a world-class performance full of imagination and experimentation. The live recording is currently available on BBC Radio 3’s website, but beware: there are only two days left until it all ends.

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