FranÁois-Xavier Roth conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Works by Ligeti, BartÛk and Haydn

Vladimir Jurowski, the London Philharmonic Choir, and the LPO

had set the bar high; FranÁois-Xavier Roth, the London Symphony Chorus, and
the LSO proved more than worthy successors.

Again, there was no nationalist sentiment in (aural) sight; instead, we
heard another fine, thought-provoking programme, with much to savour in
performance too.

Ligeti’s Lontano, music from afar, offered an introductory object
lesson in listening and thus a lesson in humanity too. What ill ever came
of listening? Alas, as we remember the victims of war, we know only too
well what ill comes of failing to listen. Infinite subtlety in work,
performance, and yes, reception offered a far greater strength to the
masculinist posturing of militarism. How much we heard, making us realise
how much we often fail to hear. The LSO seemed to act as a chorus of its
own, speaking words, messages that we might well fail to understand – and
which yet were no less real for that. Final silence at the close truly
inspired awe: a lesson for us all, albeit unlikely to be heard by those
most in need of hearing it, of listening.

For BartÛk’s Cantata profana, the LSC, tenor Julien Behr, and bass
William Thomas joined Roth and the orchestra. In this particular context,
the ballad of an uncomprehending father sending out his nine sons to hunt,
those sons thereafter, having been transformed to stags, unable to return
home, a grieving mother notwithstanding, took upon resonances perhaps not
originally ‘intended’, yet no less real for that. The transformation taking
place in words and musical form alike, a story retold, both similar to and
yet different from its original telling, invited further resonances both
old and new. It certainly did in performances both thoughtful and exciting,
in the grip of yet also liberated by musical and verbal narrative. Sinister
yet inviting orchestral polyphony at the opening itself seemed to refer to
a Bluebeard’s Castle revisited and yet forgotten – perhaps even an
earthy successor to Mahler’s Klagende Lied. This was before, let
alone after, the entry of the chorus, a world still more primÊval. Who
narrated? The forest? Humanity? Particular participants? All and none of
those, one could imagine at different times, as a magical, fantastical, yet
unquestionably ‘real’ narrative unfolded. Multifarious voices, vocal and
orchestral, spoke to us, but did we listen? Emboldened by Ligeti’s example,
we made the attempt. We were amply rewarded too, whether in Behr’s near
faultless handling of the cruel tessitura of his part, in the dark
chocolate of Thomas’s performance that yet lacked nothing in precision, or
in the outstanding command of the Hungarian text and its musical
elucidation from the chorus. Masculinity showed its tender side here too;
the ultimate tragedy nevertheless, quite rightly remained one of
incomprehension – even to the extent of knowing whether it were tragedy at

Haydn’s Missa in angustiis, the so-called ‘Nelson Mass’, offered a
different musical and indeed verbal narrative, one which could nonetheless
be related to much of what we had previously heard. In its journey from
darkness to light, from plea for mercy to divine peace, it offered delight
as well as hope, as well, perhaps, as the fear that such might yet remain
tantalisingly out of our twenty-first-century reach. The ‘Kyrie’ could
hardly have proved more urgent, Camilla Tilling first amongst solo equals,
her coloratura duly thrilling. The variegated tone of the LSO here and
elsewhere offered a point of contact with Colin Davis’s more ‘traditional’
Haydn with the same orchestra. His way is not Roth’s; nor is there any
reason it should be. There was no doubting the integrity of his more
‘period’-influenced approach, which seemed simply to correspond to his
understanding of the music rather than to the application of ideology. It
outstripped in every respect the meanderings earlier this year of

Andr·s Schiff with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Haydn’s Harmoniemesse

, which, whatever their external would-be ‘authenticity’, had shown little
engagement with the actual material of the work. Roth’s command of form as
dynamic structure was evident from this very first number, the return of
the ‘Kyrie’ material as dramatically meaningful as the coming of any
symphonic recapitulation.

The ‘Gloria’ had, to quote Haydn himself, my heart leaping for joy.
Incisive, warm orchestral playing left plenty of room for darkness too.
Behr and Christopher Purves offered finely judged responses to Tilling’s
lead, mezzo AdËle Charvet’s subsequent ‘Gratius agimus tibi’ a further,
properly symphonic development that lacked nothing in beauty of tone. And
so it continued, Haydn’s setting our guide, the hallowed liturgical text
remaining his – and our – master. If the opening of the ‘Credo’ were taken
faster than one -at least I – might have expected, certainly faster than
once would have been the case, it was certainly none the worse for that,
likewise the ‘Crucifixus’ material. Once again, in the light of Ligeti’s
invitation and, indeed, his invention, we seemed to hear so much more than
might often be the case: for instance, a string quartet writ large in the
‘Et incarnatus’ section, those terrible sounds of war too, familiar and yet
heard anew – just as they should be. There was no doubting Roth’s relish of
Haydn’s invention in the vivid setting – depiction? – of the Resurrection,
nor the superlative quality of choral singing, from which one might readily
have taken dictation. Haydn’s good nature brought tears to the eyes; it
could hardly have done so without such excellence of performance.

Awe in the ‘Sanctus’; emotional gravity in the ‘Benedictus’, further sounds
of war and all, whose surrounding setting retained its roots in an older
Austrian Baroque; an ‘Agnus Dei’ whose leisurely way brought due relief
even as we continued to implore: all paved the way for a peace which, as
ever with Haydn, passed both understanding and lazy assumptions as to what
might be ‘fitting’. There were, then, lessons aplenty to be heard and, God
willing, to be listened to too. Perhaps foremost among them was our
continuing human need for a joy which, if hardly prelapsarian, might find
good as well as ill in this, our created, fallen world.

Mark Berry

Ligeti: Lontano; BartÛk: Cantata profana; Haydn: Missa in Angustiis, ‘Nelson Mass’, Hob. XXII/11. Camilla
Tilling (soprano); AdËle Charvet (mezzo-soprano); Julien Behr (tenor);
Christopher Purves, William Thomas (bass); London Symphony Chorus (chorus
director: Simon Halsey)/London Symphony Orchestra/FranÁois-Xavier Roth
(conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Sunday 11 November 2018.

product_title= FranÁois-Xavier Roth conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Works by Ligeti, BartÛk and Haydn, at the Royal Festival Hall
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Julien Behr (tenor)

Photo credit: Rudy Waks