sat 22/06/2024

Segev, LPO, Lyniv, RFH review - melody, magic, and mourning | reviews, news & interviews

Segev, LPO, Lyniv, RFH review - melody, magic, and mourning

Segev, LPO, Lyniv, RFH review - melody, magic, and mourning

Czech life-enhancers offset a new Ukrainian symphonic elegy

Meditation in time of war: Inbal Segev, Oksana Lyniv and the LPOLondon Philharmonic Orchestra

We began in a forest packed with dangers and delights and ended, also in the Czech lands, with an infectiously joyful country dance. In between, however, came a sombre and spellbinding exposure to the pain and grief of war.

Last night at the Royal Festival Hall, Ukrainian guest conductor Oksana Lyniv led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in spirited interpretations of two life-enhancing favourites from a place somewhat to the west of her beleaguered homeland: Janáček’s orchestral suite from his opera The Cunning Little Vixen, and Dvořák’s ebulliently tuneful Symphony No. 8. 

Yet the piece sandwiched in the middle of these two lovable audience-pleasers lent the evening much of its point and edge. Following its world premiere with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in November, the LPO performed “The Bell”, a symphony for cello and orchestra by the Ukrainian composer Victoria Vita Polevá. The Israeli-American cellist Inbal Segev headed a work that stands somewhere between orchestral rhapsody and full-dress concerto. Its solo instrument at times departs from the dense, brooding textures that unfold behind it, and at others blends back into the collective voice. 

That is a voice of mourning, of elegy – and tentative hope. Like some other composers of her region and generation, Polevá (born in Kyiv in 1962) began as a card-carrying modernist before the discovery (in particular) of Orthodox church music sent her down a far more tonal and – in a broad sense – sacred path. Arvo Pärt and so-called “holy minimalism” is an obvious reference-point here. Equally plainly, Polevá rebuts the lazy assumption that there’s anything minimal in her richly layered, slow-building, immersive soundscapes. 

In this case the bells, which we hear throughout but especially as the work begins and ends, toll for the lost of this and other conflicts – but also leave lingering harmonic resonances in which memory and understanding may grow. Not just Pärt but (for instance) Górecki may have come to mind: rumbling, ominous percussion; unearthly, celestial chimes; sustained string chords, and brief smashes of minatory brass. We sense an anxious stalemate, punctuated by pure dread. Polevá calls it a work “written during the war and by the war”. Lyniv and the LPO found a lyric as well as a tragic side to the hypnotic, near-liturgical repetitions and accumulations of the core motifs that Polevá deploys.

But it was Segev’s yearning, keening cello that made this piece stand out from the mesmeric, if static, moods of a now-familiar genre. The soloist becomes a near-human voice who tries to navigate with us across this stricken terrain of bereavement and bewilderment. Segev’s vibrato-rich excursions, plaintive but powerful and always generously coloured, often soared and moved – but sometimes risked being swamped by the bass-heavy growls and roars of the massed forces behind her. On occasions the writing does consciously re-align soloist with orchestra. Still, at moments, Segev – for all her eloquence – did sound as if she was fighting against, not with, the might of the surrounding band. Another venue and acoustic might have yielded a more sensitive balance. That said, the gradual accretion of each sonic thread into a deep, enveloping carpet wove peace out of anguish as the bells – this time aspirant, if not triumphant – finally returned.

Before, and after, Poleva’s meditations in time of war, Lyniv (pictured below) served her twin Czech dishes strongly seasoned but blessedly free of schmaltz. She’s an agile, mobile, even gymnastic, presence on the podium, clear and bold in her gestures, rhythmically precise, and ever-attentive to the illuminating detail that an outfit as rich in star desks as the LPO can bring to every bar. We heard Charles Mackerras’s edition of the Cunning Little Vixen suite – sharper, less lush, and closer to the opera’s original scoring than Václav Talich’s familiar orchestration. Indeed, the benign ghost of the incomparable Mackerras hovered inevitably over the LPO’s rendering both of this work and the Dvořák.Lyniv painted the Janáček with a firm hand, in glowing but not super-saturated colours. Forest murmurs and beastly stunts arrived with a touch of asperity as well as tantalising mystery. Strings scampered, or soughed; brass snarled and snapped; woodwinds evocatively chirped. Flute (the always-excellent Juliette Bausor) and last night’s LPO leader Alice Ivy-Pemberton sparred deliciously, along with sub-leader Vesselin Gellev. Lyniv kept urbanity and rusticity in a satisfying equilibrium – as she would with Dvořák’s Eighth. This wood was full of sassy mischief as well as pantheistic enchantment. From harp (Rachel Masters) to tuba (Lee Tsarmaklis) the LPO let us appreciate every fluttering leaf or cracking twig, each bird’s call or hunter’s stomp. 

Lyniv’s Dvořák yielded an even wider palette of hues. In the first movement the cellos, led by Benjamin Hughes, managed to fuse warmth and elegance. The brass added its charismatic weight and the woods – with flutes again outstanding – showed us the sophistication that always underpins Dvořák’s cheery folksiness. Lyniv delivered jubilant, emphatic tutti, while the melodious sweetness of the middle movements saw her expansively channel the pastoral pleasures of woodland walk and tavern waltz. But she retained a tautness and control that prevented the fun from turning into slop: a core of steel behind the poise and charm. 

Her finale injected a propulsive energy into the whirling multi-section dance, with a stirring fanfare and stellar contributions once again from cellos and woods. Lyniv has over recent years become not only the first woman ever to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival, but the first female chief conductor of an Italian opera house (the Teatro Comunale di Bologna). Disgraceful and ridiculous, of course, that in the 2020s she should still have to play the pioneer – but, from battle-front to meadow, this was a fine showcase for an impressive podium talent. Let’s hope that she can return repeatedly in times of (just) peace as well as lingering war. 

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