Composers dream of a big commission from a world-class chorus and orchestra. With the delight comes terror: infinite choices, decisions, expectations. Will the work say anything new? Will the quixotic array of options be used to most expressive effect? The British composer Julian Anderson (b.1967) has had more than a few such opportunities. His latest, Exiles, direct, atmospheric, powerful, was commissioned by an elite trio: the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Bayerischer Rundfunk.
For a work in part about the enforced “exile” of Covid, it has been tripped up rudely, like much else, by the pandemic itself. Two of its projected five movements were premiered by the LSO and Simon Rattle last September, with a third, for unaccompanied double chorus, added last week, the soprano Siobhan Stagg a gleaming soloist. Anderson seemingly carries an entire solar system of orchestral sound in his head. (He’s the one you want on your team in a music quiz – having once sat gratefully by while he hoovered up every point – capable of identifying music in a split second, like knowing a painter from a speck of pigment.) His compositions may fall generally within the conventions of the concert hall but his voice is intense and incisive, combining and dividing instruments to create fresh timbres and textures.
The new movement is a homage to the American diplomat Varian Fry, who saved thousands of Europeans threatened by Nazi invasion in 1940-41. Variously intoning their names freely, or singing Psalm 46 (“God is our hope and strength”), the London Symphony Chorus performed, hidden away, in the Barbican’s balcony, voices soaring in disembodied, many-layered splendour. Blame social distancing, but it worked. All five movements, with texts in French, Hebrew and English, will be performed (and broadcast live) in Munich on 21 January.
The rest of the programme, by no means conventional and the better for it, included the Blumine movement from Mahler’s Symphony No 1. He ditched it; I’d be happy to as well. Yet Rattle and the LSO turned it into a thing of sensuous beauty, the saccharine, mawkish trumpet melody, now taut and lean, played superbly by the orchestra’s new principal trumpet, James Fountain. Like so many brass players, he has a brass band background, his sound pinging, pure and eloquent.
The spirited and capacious third movement from the Symphony in E major (1878-80) by Hans Rott was the evening’s novelty. Rott was a friend of Mahler but loathed by Brahms and came to an early and unhappy end. The evening’s second half opened with Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra, a miniature treasure chest of perfect structure and variety. Dvořák’s Symphony No 7, with some small smudges but enormous drive, definition and rhythmic urgency, completed an enthusiastically received evening.
Grange Park Opera has pulled many a trick out of its magic hat in response to 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, Il trittico, this humane comedy is drawn from a tale of greed and trickery in Dante’s Inferno. In Giovacchino Forzano, Puccini had a versatile librettist, capable of providing the text for another Trittico opera, Suor Angelica, about a nun and her heartbreak 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 glee and humour 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 the young lovers. Merely being in one room with the likes of Ailish Tynan, Sara Fulgoni, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Jeremy White and more must have felt like a party, never mind the joy of romping through Puccini’s wriggling, quicksilver score. According to past practice – in Owen Wingrave and L’heure espagnole – the company sweet-talked friendly patrons into lending their premises for the action, in this case a deluxe home and a garage workshop (Schicchi is updated from Florentine “new money” trickster to car mechanic). The sound was recorded at Wigmore Hall, with Chris Hopkins as music director and pianist. A small and nameless canine star nearly stole the show.
Star ratings (out of five)
Gianni Schicchi ★★★★
The LSO concert will be available online on Medici TV from Thursday 3 February, 7pm
Gianni Schicchi is free to watch on YouTube