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S & H Concert Reviews
Related Rocks: The Music of Magnus Lindberg, QEH 7th Feb 2002 & RFH 10th Feb 2002 (PQ)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 7 February 2002
Lindberg Parada, Cello Concerto
Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death
Sibelius Symphony 4
Nathan Berg (bass), Anssi Karttunen (cello)

Royal Festival Hall, 10 February 2002
Lindberg Chorale, Aura
Berg Violin Concerto
Sarah Chang (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

While Lindberg’s refined craft of orchestral sonority is of course impressive, what will make his music last is the fact that it works. All four pieces heard in the second part of this Lindberg festival leave a strong impression on first hearing; repeated acquaintance with them enables you to follow the musical argument, with all its implied diversions and dramas, just as one follows the arguments of Brahms, Bruckner or Sibelius. The harmonic and rhythmic tension of Lindberg’s music owes nothing to the former two, but the tools listeners gain in appreciating them are identical to those which aid understanding of it.

In the context of such intimate musical sympathy the two concerto items were disappointing, largely because neither soloist displayed the commitment to idiom that distinguished Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting. Nathan Berg needs more than Chaliapin’s beard to evoke the great man’s vocal stature. Whether through vocal miscasting or unfamiliarity he was unable to characterise Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death beyond a boyish fear. The initial Lullaby was too quick, and the sinister harmony of the orchestral refrain as Death croons ‘Hush-a-bye, baby, my own’ passed unacknowledged by Berg. Since he lacks any Russian blackness of timbre he must find other devices to convey the triumph in Serenade and the Field Marshal or the sneering humour of the Trepak. His Russian isn’t strong enough to help him do this, but his ease across the range and lack of any break is much to his advantage. There is plenty of suitable Russian repertoire for a lovely, open voice such as his to tackle so I hope to hear him in some Rachmaninov songs before too long.

Sarah Chang briskly played through Berg’s Concerto but displayed a similar unwillingness to get into the guts of the music. She cultivated a certain style, thin in tone colour but rich in vibrato that would be just right for Kreisler’s Caprice Viennois – but this is not the Vienna that Berg’s Concerto comes from. Berg’s swan-song is rich in personal and musical references to a rapidly fading age, and the soloist needs to tell that Romantic story with the sort of weight demanded by Brahms’s Concerto. Instead, her plain and disconnected phrasing made the work came over as ‘difficult’ music.

In the newest of the Lindberg items, the composer has recomposed the same Bach chorale which runs through the final pages of Berg’s Concerto, ‘Es ist genug’ from BWV60. The result is both recognisably Bach and fully Lindberg and as such it fits squarely within a recent tradition of composers’ Bach re-workings – Rachmaninov and Webern are two of the most successful examples. Chorale’s simultaneous juxtaposition of fast and slow music is a classic Lindberg device, one which pulls the listener in different directions and generates wonderful – and quite traditional – tension. All the more satisfying, then when the tension is thoroughly resolved, as it invariably is in Lindberg’s music. In that regard this six-minute work is a microcosm of Aura, Lindberg’s largest work to date. The device does mean that the overall feeling of Lindberg’s music can be of continual motion, as the ear is often attracted more to whirling woodwind riffs than slowly evolving Bergian string chords, and it takes a little patience to hear how the material of Aura can move at several different speeds at once. Even Parada, which Lindberg describes as long-awaited slow music, contains a great deal of secondary motion which belies the heavy tread of the overall pulse. The same effect is apparent in Birtwistle’s Triumph of Time; or, to choose a natural analogy germane to Lindberg’s Finland, the brass interjections in Parada tumble down the surface of glassy string chords like rocks across a glacier: each moves at its own rate.

The Cello Concerto contains the least slow music of all four pieces, partly due to the definite nature of the solo part as protagonist. It goes into the snowline with a glissando in the first bar and regularly returns thereafter, setting up arching phrases to which the orchestra respond. Just at the point where the ear longs for relief from perpetual activity, Lindberg provides it with a change of texture rather than of tempo, lightening the accompaniment to flutes, trumpets, string harmonics and high percussion. As in Aura, the last pages of the concerto climb towards a formal, diatonic closure, then appear to subvert this with whistling harmonics up and down the strings (or single C string, in the case of the concerto). A touch of humour on Lindberg’s part? Maybe. I would also put it down to the nagging need to rebel (felt and discussed by Lindberg, Salonen and Saariaho) against the Finnish musical autarchy of Conservatism personified first by Sibelius, then by Sallinen. It’s interesting to note in this context that the one work of Sibelius Lindberg chose to accompany his music is the famously UNresolved Fourth Symphony. Would that we could hear this in public with even half the frequency of the Second; would also that all performances be as fabulously concentrated as this one.
Peter Quantrill


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