The concept of the London Philharmonic’s Vision 2020 festival was simple: pair works by Beethoven and his contemporaries with pieces from exactly 100 or 200 years either side. Gimmicky, certainly, but also a chance to take the temperature of each age, something more unusual than yet another Mozart concerto or Mahler symphony.
You can’t fault the bravery of the orchestra’s outgoing music director Vladimir Jurowski, who found a way not just to mark Beethoven’s 250th anniversary but also programme music by Scriabin, Schoenberg, Anna Clyne and Brett Dean as well.
The festival reached its close last week in Interrupted Stories. With the promised centrepiece – the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio – derailed by Covid, we lost the series’ symbolic ending. But the replacement, MacMillan’s 1991 Sinfonietta, felt like a fitting close. Shaped in a slowly revealed arch, Sinfonietta moves from quiet, through a confronting central conflict, back to stillness. A keening saxophone suspended in a haze of strings, beautiful but restless.
Delivered with gnomic precision, the MacMillan came at the end of a programme that opened with Vivaldi (the bustling overture to his little-known opera La verita in cimento) and travelled via Beethoven-contemporary Spohr’s Second Symphony and Honegger’s hazy, lazy summerscape Pastorale d’ete.
Sir Arthur Bliss is a composer better known for establishment bonhomie than rabble-rousing. How good, then, to be pulled up short by his explosive Rout – a riotous carnival of percussion, swooping harp and piquant strings that scandalised London at its 1920 premiere. A soprano soloist (here Mary Bevan) sings Dadaist nonsense over the top – the ringmaster for the joyful cacophony.
As with all good jokes, it must be played straight to hit its mark, and Jurowski, Bevan and the LPO showed not a flicker of amusement as they dispatched the madness of 2020 with a shout and a musical kick up the backside.
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