Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
Silvery and mottled, perhaps a tapestry of elm-eaten velvet, or the flowing walls of a watery cave: the set for English National Opera’s Symphony of Sad Songs, a stage of Symphony No. 3 by Górecki (1977), which achieved full marks for beauty and mystery. As the music began, a simple song flowing on double bass solos, this enigmatic interior slowly began to undulate. The stage adopted the appearance of the womb as seen on an ultrasound scan. Amniotic fluid has never looked so classy. In the corner, a dead body lay on a trolley. A mother (American soprano Nicole Chevalier) mourned her grown son, from birth to death.
You will see at the same time that the cheer is not on the horizon. As director-designer Isabella Bywater describes it, this is an installation – three aspects of grief, three mini-stories about death and violent loss. The Virgin Mary weeping for her crucified son; a message is written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during the second world war; a mother searches for her son who was killed in the Chilean rebellion.
Some context is needed to recognize the significance of this symphony in recent musical history – the stage has nothing to do with ENO but is important all the same. Polish composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) applied the avant garde techniques of his youth years before other composers were interested. The religious spirit of labor was at odds with the anti-religious dogma of cold war communism. It went unnoticed until 1992, when soprano Dawn Upshaw recorded it on Nonesuch, directed by David Zinman, to remember the victims of the Holocaust. Aided by Classic FM’s advocacy in the station’s first week, it sold millions, spurred chants and “minimalist holy” imitators and inspired serious post-war avant garde issues in classical music. No work since has had that impact.
As one, the boys’ choir turned into heavenly merry bells
Played with clarity and warmth by the ENO Orchestra, conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya, the symphony was as unaffected as ever. His methodical style and his light, layered style are landing into the soul of the listener, without bombardment. The work lasts only an hour, and Bywater’s staging, supported by Roberto Vitalini’s video designs, Jon Driscoll’s lighting and Dan O’Neil’s movement direction, was flawless. It is more difficult to decide whether it makes any sense in an opera house, or if it is added to the music. Some heart-in-mouth aerial work and Chevalier’s transformation into a winged angel created exquisite spectacle, which was slowly unfolding. Spoiler alert: you might come out feeling glum.
Two types of Mahler reminded us of the composer’s own ability to write symphonies of sad songs, but in the case of his Symphony No. 3 (1896), the music is also glowing, which infuses the loneliness with the celebration of spring. and with the sound of the children. Under the direction of its musical director, Vasily Petrenko, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed this majestic and majestic work as part of his cycle of three Mahler choral symphonies at the Albert Hall. Full of vivid details and impressive solos of the section (violin, trombone, oboe, post horn offstage), it lifted the movement of the symphony and they engaged attractively, even if the intensity of the work felt a little cool sometimes. Standing in the middle of the orchestra, the mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp sang Friedrich Nietzsche’s “O Mensch” with great resonance: “O man! Pay attention … the world is deep! … His grief is deep.”
The Tiffin Boys’ Choir – almost 60 boys – gave Immaculate attention through the long wait until their moment came in the penultimate fifth movement. Then, as one, they turned themselves into cheerful, heavenly bells, singing “Bimm, bamm, bimm, bamm” as if it were a truly rational and desirable activity. The women’s voices of the Philharmonic Choir matched the spirit and commitment of the women. The Adagio finale is the moment we have been waiting for in this work: a study in calm and tranquility, surely the most perfect music Mahler wrote (discuss, but not here). Petrenko and the RPO lived through all the love and pity of this music, brass bringing in the final major sustained chords, two timpanists sustaining their final declarations in fortissimo unison, driving the work to its grand finale.
While this is still ringing in my ears (and it always ends, for days), I heard the London Philharmonic Orchestra To play another Mahler Adagio, also burdened with heartfelt nostalgia, from his unfinished 10th Symphony (ed. Erwin Ratz). It happened after the whirlwind of Thomas Larcher, Symphony No. 2 (2015-16) is outstanding – written in honor of refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea – and Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich, played by Julian Rachlin with inspiring flair. This was my first encounter with Klaus Mäkelä in concert. The Finnish star conductor, 27, has had a meteoric rise and currently holds multiple positions including principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, music director of the Orchester de Paris and, from 2027, principal conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.
Given that phenomenal success, it’s no wonder that Mäkelä has already attracted spiky reviews. It seemed to me that he knew exactly what he was doing, especially in the Larch knot claims. From the back, you could barely make out what he was sending without the sound, and his gestures are even more familiar. I’m going to hear more.
Star ratings (out of five)
Symphony of Sad Songs ★★★★