It was apt that Haydn’s 'Nelson' Mass – the Mass “in dire straits”, written in 1798 when Napoleon and France were at their most predatory – should take its place among the Armistice Centenary events, and there was also a Hungarian connection, albeit a loose one, with the other works.
This LSO concert and its Principal Guest Conductor had opened with Ligeti’s Lontano, a work François-Xavier Roth has featured often and which, incidentally, has been borrowed to beef up mental disintegration on the soundtracks of The Shining and Shutter Island. Despite the cerebral discipline of avant-garde music in the 1960s, the mystery and veiled romance of Lontano and Ligeti’s earlier Atmosphères put the composer on the map, and half a century later the rapport between Roth and the LSO justifies Lontano’s status as a modern classic. Roth, as it were, ‘plays’ the orchestra in a way that looks more like suggestion than overt direction, conjuring Ligeti’s cloudlike layers of shimmering decay, unstable unisons dissolving into strange polyphony, shifting perspectives, and a momentum on the cusp of stasis. There is a complete absence of percussion, and the LSO’s playing of the music’s elaborate skein of highly nuanced expression was a marvel. What an ear Ligeti had.
After a decade-long gestation, Bartók completed Cantata profana in 1930, around the same time as the Piano Concerto No.2. For a work that lasts barely twenty minutes, with two singers and full chorus and orchestra, it’s no wonder that it is infrequently performed. Bartók developed the work from a Transylvanian folk ballad about nine hunter-brothers transformed into stags who refuse their father’s plea to return, as humans, to hearth and home. It is both an allegory on growing up and a powerful discourse about the natural world. The London Symphony Chorus distinguished itself in Bartók’s knotty choral writing and sounded equally confident in singing in Hungarian, while Roth trod a fine line between Bartók’s folk-inspired angularity and the earlier, more opulent style of, say, Bluebeard’s Castle. There were a couple of times when I feared for Julien Behr as Bartók pushes the vocal line into the stratosphere. Otherwise his seductive, lyrical voice fitted the role of the eldest son who opposes his father’s will. The father was sung by William Thomas, who, performing at short notice, sounded completely on top of the role and of the language. This Kathleen Ferrier prize-winner sang gloriously, and on the evidence of this (and of his part in Glyndebourne’s Vanessa this summer) he is one to watch.
With a smaller orchestra (four double basses) and a chamber pipe-organ, the LSO slipped into Classical style for Haydn's 'Nelson' Mass, its taut opening obliterated by the chorus’s wall of sound in the ‘Kyrie eleison’. Roth applied enough pressure for this and the ‘Gloria’ to sound rushed, and the choral weight was enough to submerge Camilla Tilling’s soprano fireworks in the ‘Kyrie’ reprise. Elsewhere, the finesse and warmth of her singing made their mark, Adèle Charvet’s solos were full-toned and agile, Behr’s voice got its chance to shine in some lovely, cultivated singing, and Christopher Purves (as with Thomas replacing Matthew Rose who had been scheduled for both the Bartók and the Haydn) stamped his authority on the bass solos – he was marvellous in the “Qui tollis” section of the ‘Gloria’ – and in the ensemble passages. Roth kept things taut and was especially attentive to the soloists, and with the LSC on such fine confrontational form, this was very much the Mass as drama.