Thomas AdËs conducts Stravinsky’s PersÈphone at the Royal Festival Hall

was commissioned in early 1933 by the dancer Ida Rubinstein and performed
by her ballet company the following year (the score – for solo tenor
(Eumolpus, the Priest), speaker-dancer (Persephone, the Goddess), mixed
chorus and children’s chorus – was revised in 1949). An imperious and
idiosyncratic patron – she also commissioned the painter LÈon Bakst to
arrange the flowers in her Parisian garden in boxes, so that the design
could be changed every few weeks, and was reported to keep a black tiger
cup and drink champagne out of Madonna lilies – she requested from
Stravinsky a sung ballet based upon AndrÈ Gide’s poem PersÈphone, in which she would take the speaker-dancer role of the
harvest-bringing goddess of fertility.

Gide’s text, based on Homer’s ‘Hymn to Demeter’ from the Iliad,
gives the classical myth a Christian gloss – also fitting for this Easter
month perhaps, but less successful in terms of ‘narrative’. In Gide’s
libretto, PersÈphone’s sacrifice is voluntary – she willingly and knowingly
picks the fatal narcissus bloom – and the compassion she demonstrates,
transfiguring. When rescued courtesy of the sudden appearance of
Demophoˆn/Triptolemus she rejoices at being restored to her mother,
Demeter, but accepts that her bond with Pluto cannot be broken. Gide closes
his French text with the words of Jesus, as reported by Saint John, ‘Except
a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it
die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’ (Il faut, pour qu’un printemps
renaisse/ Que le grain consente a mourir/ Sour terre, afin qu’il
repraraisse/ En moisson d’or pour l’avenir), thereby reconciling classicism and Christianity. One suspects Stravinsky’s
interest in lay in more earthy rituals of sacrifice and renewal such as he
had explored in The Rite of Spring.

Conductor Thomas AdËs conjured the transparency and textural variety of the
score with delicacy and clear direction in equal measure – I was reminded
of Lily Briscoe’s vision, in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,
of ‘the colour burning on a framework of steel; the light of a butterfly’s
wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral’. The London Philharmonic
Orchestra produced tender sonorities and a beguiling sweetness; superb
playing by the strings, piano and harp was enhanced by beautiful woodwind
solos, nowhere more so than the flutes’ decoration of PersÈphone’s final
speech. AdËs never allowed the large stretches of ostinato to inhibit the
forward momentum and there was an underlying rhythmic impetus, and
occasionally a dance-like sweep.

The ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir injected sensuality and mystery
into the murmurs of the opening chorus, ‘Reste avec nous, princesse
PersÈphone’, as the nymphs entreat the goddess to stay, as her mother
instructed, in their care, amid the flowers and birds, the tender embrace
of the stream, the caress of the air. The lullaby, ‘Sur ce lit elle
repose’, was beautifully shaped. Male and female voices came together
sonorously in ‘Nous apportions nos offrandes’ (We bring offerings), the
chorus in Part III (PersÈphone Reborn) which swells with the
spirit of Russian Easter music. The members of Trinity Boys Choir sat
perfectly still for forty-five minutes before, singing from memory, they
added a pure religiosity to the closing episodes.

In Eumolpus’ first rhetorical address to the goddess of a million names,
‘puissante Demeter’, Toby Spence’s tenor was rather overwhelmed by the
vibrant orchestral forces and he seemed a little uncomfortable vocally.
But, subsequently, particularly in the more declamatory, recitative-like
passages Spence grew in sureness, stature and confidence; and the
high-lying line certainly presented no difficulty – there was never a sense
of strain at the top, and by the close there was considerable dignity.

Gide’s French verses are richly romantic: Stravinsky described such
phraseology as ‘La brise a caressÈ les fleurs’ (The breeze has caressed the
flowers), ‘Ivresse matinale’ (Morning intoxication) and ‘Rayon naissante,
petale’ (Newborn sunbeam, petal), as ‘vers caramel’. Dame Kristin Scott
Thomas conveyed both the perfume and the poise of the poetry. Not only was
her French faultless, but her timing was impeccable too – no mean feat
given that Stravinsky did not indicate in the score how the text should be
synchronised with the music.

Such exquisite calm and control was all the more noteworthy and telling,
considering the exuberance of the works performed in the first half of the
concert. Gerald Barry’s Organ Concerto (receiving its first London
performance) is a miscellany of memory, incorporating assorted aural
remembrances from Barry’s childhood: a harmonium (a solo for which is more
extensive and prominent than the writing for organ), Angelus bells, 21
metronomes, and more. It’s also a war-zone, reflecting Barry’s own
inharmonious relationship with the Sacristan at a Catholic church outside
Cologne where the composer once worked, and the early twentieth-century
musical battle between tonality and atonality. Barry tells us the impetus
to embrace the latter contest was prompted by a photograph of a Washington
Square cat, Blue Gadoo, peering at a book called Sex and The Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde’: ‘By his
expression I knew he was mourning the loss of atonality. So I put his fight
for atonality against tonality into the concerto.’

If this sounds rather too consciously self-aware, then the resulting work
is certainly combative. The stuttering trumpet initiates the antagonism
that the organ (Thomas Trotter) then escalates until the initial splutters
have become a cacophonous rampage – Stravinsky’s superimpositions, in The Rite, say, result in what might termed ‘organised chaos’, but
I’m not sure that’s what Barry has is mind. After the storm, silence: a
timpani tone row, rising step by step, initiates some quietude into which
intrude tolling bells and ticking metronomes. ‘Resolution’ of a sort is
attained through a final hymn in which the trumpets’ lovely circular melody
sits asymmetrically atop pounding, harmonious tutti crotchets in 4/4 time.
If with such concordance one felt one’s nerves finally relax, the knowledge
that Barry titles this hymn, Humiliated and Insulted, might have
tempered the relief offered by the final consonance.

AdËs seemed to relish Barry’s battles, conducting with intellectual command
and technical precision. He always has seemed able to assimilate a huge
range of ideas and debates with utter command, and no lack of emotion or
sensitivity, and this was exemplified in the work which opened the concert,
his own – recently extended – orchestral suite from his 1995 ballet, Powder Her Face. Despite the huge forces employed and the
hyperbolic emotions conjured, AdËs ensured that we could appreciate the
Stravinskian lucidity and quasi-classicism of the score, which, with
pictorial episodes added to the original three dances, now encompasses more
of a narrative. The LPO slinked through the slides, whoops, snide nasality
and louche levity, as AdËs, his gestures crisp and clear, the baton
essaying pungent swipes at times, proved an exemplary guide through the
nightmarishly complex rhythmic and temporal side-steps and sashays.

Despite all the virtuosity and variety on display, though, it was the
purity – both Gallic and classical – essential lyricism and simplicity of PersÈphone which seemed most profound.

Claire Seymour

Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey

Thomas AdËs: Powder Her Face Suite (UK premiere)

Gerald Barry: Organ Concerto

Stravinsky: PersÈphone

Thomas AdËs (conductor), Thomas Trotter (organ), Tonby Spence (narrator),
Dame Kristin Scott Thomas (PersÈphone), London Philharmonic Orchestra and
Choir, Trinity Boys Choir.

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 11th April 2018.

image_description=Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey – LPO, Thomas AdËs (conductor) at the Royal Festival Hall
product_title=Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey – LPO, Thomas AdËs (conductor) at the Royal Festival Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Dame Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas AdËs, Toby Spence, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, Trinity Boys Choir

Photograph courtesy of Trinity Boys Choir