sat 13/07/2024

Murray, Vlaams Radiokor, LPO, Gardner, RFH review - visual ‘interpretation’ blunts sonic brilliance in Szymanowski rarity | reviews, news & interviews

Murray, Vlaams Radiokor, LPO, Gardner, RFH review - visual ‘interpretation’ blunts sonic brilliance in Szymanowski rarity

Murray, Vlaams Radiokor, LPO, Gardner, RFH review - visual ‘interpretation’ blunts sonic brilliance in Szymanowski rarity

Sterling work from conductor and orchestra couldn’t save an incoherent evening

Beautiful bodies sideline SzymanowskiAll images c Wayne McGregor & Ben Cullen Williams' A Body For Harnasie (Mark Allan)

Chances are few enough to catch Polish composer Szymanowski’s densely brilliant 1920s score for a ballet about love in the Tatra mountains. Harnasie (Robbers) is so little known that we need a clear line through action and sung text. That all went out of the window in the projections of renowned choreographer Wayne McGregor and visual artist Ben Cullen Williams.

It was the final nail in the coffin of an evening where excellent work from Edward Gardner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra was sabotaged at every turn.

The beautiful bodies of three dancers from Company Wayne McGregor made a good enough counterpoint to Szymanowski’s opening mysteries. But as tempos increased, we were stuck with the slow motion. Blurred shapes gave way to images of the high Tatras (pictured below), as if the visual team realized it needed to reference the source at least once; for the choral blaze – excellent work from the Flemish Radio Choir, likewise the unexplained solos of tenor Robert Murray – what we read later (or before) in the programme was complex work involving A1 looked beautiful for a moment, but rolled on and on. Scene from 'A Body for Harnasie'It's true that Szymanowski advised future directors and ballet-masters to be free with the subject-matter and discard, if they wished, too literal a reference to “folk customs and dances”. Yet an outline needs to remain, especially as the thick textures and polytonality of the score are hard enough to follow as it is. It founders on a lack of memorable ideas; Szymanowski, though a master of the orchestra, was no Bartók or Martinů when it came to quality of dance invention. Even so, you couldn’t have wished for a more experienced conductor than Gardner – he’s recorded the work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, a must, and has just returned from a performance in Poland – nor more limpidly enigmatic solos than those from the LPO woodwind.

The first half didn’t work either. Programmes had run out before the concert began, and while I don’t think it’s a good idea to read the composer’s ideas about a world premiere before the performance, it’s good to know how long the work is going to be. Clearly the aimless doodling which begain a minute in to Tania León’s Raíces (Origins) wasn’t going anywhere; we could have been in for a very long haul. We weren’t, and there were contrasts in the forest meander – lower brass chordings, trumpets in the later stages. But this was an instantly forgettable showing from León, the LPO’s Composer in Residence. LPO/GardnerRavel’s La Valse needs a significant context out of which to waltz, lurch and collapse; it felt oddly isolated, and though Gardner gave fine space to two later climaxes, the sense of dread was absent. Unusual programmes are especially welcome in the current Southbank climate of safe orchestral evenings, but they need proper thinking behind them. Last year's bold programme of four UK premieres was more like it; let's hope for a return to something of the same.

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