Exile and Isolation: Julian Anderson’s Suite from Exiles, the LSO and Simon Rattle

Often you go to concerts and the programming isn’t especially obvious – why are these works being played besides each other?  This is particularly the case with concertos and symphonies.  This LSO concert had no less than five works, beginning with a suite from a choral work and ending with a symphony – in between which was sandwiched a symphonic movement the composer discarded from his first symphony, another symphonic movement lifted straight out of that composer’s only symphony and one of the greatest of all Second Viennese School works.  It was unorthodox programming, and one in which there was no discernible musical link that threaded them together, although the opening work, Julian Anderson’s Exiles, did provide some kind of theoretical suggestion – at least when we got to the end.  But it’s the kind of provocative – and thought provoking – program that Simon Rattle likes to give – and one for a virtuoso orchestra to play.  Some works came off better than others, but unevenness is something of a Rattle trait.

Mahler’s ‘Blumine’ has never really held a firm place as one of the movements in Mahler’s First Symphony.  Difficult to pace without it sounding completely glacial – as it far too often is the case in performances – this can be quite an elusive little piece to get right.  Rattle’s tendency throughout this concert was to come in slower than the timings in the booklet suggested – which were, I think, rather on the conservative side – but ‘Blumine’ was an exception and came in pretty much on time.  Introspective, nostalgic and so expressively the opposite of the anguish that seems to be the musical language of the First Symphony perhaps it does offer a more romanticised view of love.  Played in isolation, and as beautifully as it was here, with the lush LSO strings, it simply stood as a single Mahlerian poem – a set of musical stanzas that felt closer to Keats than the turbulence of Mahler.

The tragedy of Hans Rott was little understood in his own lifetime, and barely more in our own.  Plagued with persecution mania, and committed to an asylum after a psychotic breakdown attributed, in part, to rejection by Brahms, and his subsequent belief the composer had placed dynamite in the carriage of the train he was travelling on, he died aged 25 having destroyed much of his work.  Rott’s E major Symphony took almost a century to be recognized for the substantial work it is. Ironically, Brahms’s devastating judgment of it never recognized his own influence on the work, especially in the final movement.  Other parts of the E major feel Brucknerian in their scope and the brass writing – notably in the movement that Rattle and the LSO played – would influence Mahler when he came to compose his own first symphony.  But this is a work that is original in concept even if what it owes to late Romanticism is a debt rather than a revolutionary contribution to it.

The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle (c) Mark Allan

The third movement Scherzo is the complete antithesis to Mahler’s ‘Blumine’.  Rather more dramatic and serious than many scherzos from this period, its brass writing owes much to Bruckner even if the rhythms do not. Rott shares with his mentor those elements of rusticism in the string writing, although Rott’s direction is altogether more brilliantly Romantic looking forward to Wagner.  Rattle allowed the LSO brass to shine – spot lit trumpet and horn solos were beautifully poised; but he held back on the depth in the strings, robbing the music slightly of its Romantic tone.  This wasn’t to be an issue in the major work after the interval – Dvořák’s Symphony No.7.  This brooding, powerful and sometimes dark work proved to be something of a problem – although it really had little to do with the performance itself which swung between moments of radiance and explosiveness.  The phrasing was wonderfully eloquent, lyrical as well as full of drama – and I found the build-up to the coda of the Allegro just thrilling.  The LSO played with the kind of virile power and fabulous attention to detail this score demands – the problem being it sounded opaque, and rhythms – in this of all late nineteenth-century composers – elided into one another or just vanished.

Rattle’s layout of the orchestra on stage – when we are these days becoming more commonly used to hearing antiphonal violins and a more central ‘bass’ sound – made a point of focusing the sound in pockets of the orchestra rather than let it find its own space.  If this had been a frustration in the Dvořák it was a full-blown tragedy in Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Op.6.  Although this work uses vast orchestral forces – notably percussion – Webern uses his forces with sparse effect.  The third part of the work, I struggled to comprehend from Rattle’s point of view.  Rather than the string solos sounding open and being able to project in a sparseness that also had breadth what I heard felt almost the opposite: a crawlspace of tight strings.  The absence of strings in the fourth piece, however, shifts the balance of the sound to the percussion and, placed exactly where they should be, it was thrilling.  Were it not for the seating of the orchestra – which it is entirely possible some might have preferred – this would have been a great performance of the Webern: the LSO played superbly and Rattle is a master of colour, eliciting superb dynamics in this music.  There is a dazzling pellucid polish to the sound Rattle gets from the LSO; and none of the inductive gaze. 

Julian Anderson’s Suite from Exiles (for soprano, chorus and orchestra) opened the concert.  Taking three of the original works five movements, Anderson’s subject is both internal and external exile – one evoked by Covid, the other two inspired by the individual (in this case a list of some of the prominent artists saved from the Nazis by the American diplomat Varian Fry) and the national, inspired by the Romanian composer Horatio Rădulescu who fled the Ceaușescu regime to France.

The work is unusual in the texts that Anderson has chosen to use.  The Covid exile text uses an email sent by the Moroccan-French composer Ahmed Essayed.  The movement is simply given the date of the email, ‘la 3 Mai’. The second part is split into two sections – with the choir singing two separate texts.  Choir I sings a selection of names from those saved by Fry; almost all of those who were saved were artists, composers, poets, novelists, philosophers, painters, musicians all of whom appeared on Nazi death lists; Choir II sings extracts from Psalm 46.  The third section is titled Tsiyon (Sion) and as well as including Psalm 137 also includes a stanza from the poem Exile by Rădulescu.  Each part, as well as being from a different time, is also in a different language: English, French and Hebrew.

Ahmed Essyad’s email strikes an uneasy balance between the reality of isolation and the obligations it enforces and the desires of a freedom that can only be realised through what you see or your imagination.  Emails can tend towards the prosaic – they are perhaps intended to be – but Essyad reverses that in ‘la 3 Mai’ by writing something that is dramatically poetic. Siobhan Stagg, the soprano who sang this part of the work, calibrated well the beauty of the text.  But she also managed to draw out some of Essyad’s deeper emotions.  Her French tended to become muffled but this was a price worth paying for the insight she brought to her singing.

Anderson’s list of those saved by Fry is limited to some of those who are – or were – still active as writers, artists, composers and musicians over the past century. The chorus was placed high in the auditorium – I assume on the very top level.  With voices being pushed into the orchestra rather than coming from it, clarity wasn’t always crystal clear, but the beauty of the singing, the separation of the sopranos, mezzos, tenors and basses was almost perfectly aligned. The two choirs are heard in syllabic fragments until they crystalise and then separate out again before joining together for the conclusion of the Psalm 46.  It is complex in structure – and complex to listen to but the effect is extraordinary. The London Symphony Chorus sang it with supreme effectiveness.

The third and final setting, Tsiyon, is set for the chorus singing the Hebrew text and the soprano the poem Exile.  Rădulescu’s stanza, set without punctuation over its five floating lines, is personal and deeply emotive – syllabically complex, almost paying homage to a Straussian richness of phrasing.  Siobhan Stagg – with rich tone, and an unbroken line she had no difficulty meeting the demands of Anderson’s music nor Rădulescu’s poetry and brought true poignancy to it.

Exile and isolation may well be the themes on which this concert hung. Julian Anderson’s own Suite on Exile may have been the centrepiece where the rest of the works became a kind of addendum to it. Mahler and Webern found their works suppressed by the very regime which had forced into exile or threatened with death so many of the artists saved by Varian Fry.  Mahler was exiled because of anti-Semitism and the displacement that would later be forced on Rădulescu; Dvořák’s works are emblematic of nationalism but not of the nationalism that would be the cause of the exile brought to so many.  The isolation of Ahmed Essyad is just one faced by millions, but it is an isolation that Hans Rott would have recognised in entirely different circumstances.  Exile and isolation are almost inseparable losses. I think this concert probably began with no thought of a discernible link but by the end of it we may have found one.

Recorded for future broadcast on Marquee TV.

Marc Bridle

Siobhan Stagg (soprano), London Symphony Chorus (director, Simon Halsey), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Julian Anderson – Suite from Exiles for solo soprano, chorus and orchestra; Gustav Mahler – ‘Blumine’, from Symphony No.1; Hans Rott –Third Movement from Symphony in E minor; Anton Webern – Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Op.6; Anton Dvořák – Symphony No.7 in D minor Op.70.

Barbican Centre, London; Sunday 9th January 2022.

ABOVE: Siobhan Stagg (c) Mark Allan