VScomposers dream of a big commission from a world-class choir and orchestra. With pleasure comes terror: endless choices, decisions, expectations. Will the work say something new? Will the quixotic array of options be used to the most expressive effect? British composer Julian Anderson (b. 1967) has had more than one such occasion. His last, Exilesdirect, atmospheric, powerful, was commissioned by an elite trio: the London Symphony Orchestra and Choirthe Boston Symphony Orchestra and Bayerischer Rundfunk.
For a work partly about the forced “exile” of Covid, it was crudely triggered, like many others, by the pandemic itself. Two of his five projected movements were created by the LSO and Simon Rattle last September, with a third, for double choir without accompaniment, added last week, the soprano Siobhan Stagg a gleaming soloist. Anderson apparently carries an entire solar system of orchestral sound in his head. (He’s the one you want on your team in a music quiz – after once sitting gratefully while vacuuming every dot – able to identify music in a split second, like know a painter from a speck of pigment.) His compositions may generally fall into concert hall conventions, but his voice is intense and incisive, combining and dividing instruments to create fresh timbres and textures.
The new movement is a tribute to American diplomat Varian Fry, who saved thousands of Europeans threatened by the Nazi invasion in 1940-41. Freely intoning their names in various ways or singing Psalm 46 (“God is our hope and our strength”), the London Symphony Chorus interpreted, hidden, on the balcony of the Barbican, voices rising in disembodied splendor at several levels. Blame social distancing, but it worked. The five movements, with texts in French, Hebrew and English, will be performed (and broadcast live) in Munich on January 21.
The rest of the program, far from conventional and good for him, included the Blumine movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. He abandoned her; I would be happy too. Yet Rattle and the LSO made it into a thing of sultry beauty, the sweet honeyed trumpet melody, now taut and lean, played superbly by the orchestra’s new principal trumpet, James Fountain. Like so many brass instruments, it has a marching band formation, its sound snapping, pure and eloquent.
The fiery and expansive third movement of Hans Rott’s Symphony in E major (1878-80) was the novelty of the evening. Rott was a friend of Mahler but hated by Brahms and met an early and unhappy end. The second part of the evening opened with Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra, a miniature treasure chest of perfect structure and variety. Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, with a few blemishes but enormous dynamism, definition and rhythmic urgency, ended an enthusiastically received evening.
Grange Park Opera has pulled many tricks out of its magic hat to meet the constraints of the past two years. Its latest effervescent offering is Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (1917-18), an ideal choice for GPO’s sixth filmed opera. Part of his triple bill, The tritticothis human comedy is taken from a story of greed and cunning in Dante Hell. With Giovacchino Forzano, Puccini had a versatile librettist, capable of supplying the text to another Trittico opera, Sweat Angelica, about a nun and her grief over an illegitimate child. He was also, food for thought, later a director of fascist propaganda films for Mussolini.
The cast of 12, led by William Dazeley in the title role, put joy and humor into every note and gesture. Chloe Morgan (who made the most of the opera’s big number, O mio babbino caro) and Luis Gomes were irrepressible as young lovers. Just being in a room with the likes of Ailish Tynan, Sara Fulgoni, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Jeremy White and many more must have felt like a party, not to mention the joy of blowing off steam on the score. wriggling and fast of Puccini. According to past practice – in Owen Wingrave and spanish time – the company convinced friendly customers to lend their premises for the action, in this case a luxury house and garage workshop (Schicchi is upgraded from Florentine “new money” scammer to car mechanic). The sound was recorded at Wigmore Hall, with Chris Hopkins as musical director and pianist. An unnamed little canine star almost stole the show.
Star ratings (out of five)
Gianni Schicchi ★★★★
The LSO concert will be available online on Medici TV from Thursday, February 3, 7 p.m.
Gianni Schicchi is free to watch on YouTube