Flight of the spirit

Barbara Hannigan and the London Philharmonic Orchestra perform new music from Magnus Lindberg

Flight of the spirit

This was an evening of agony and ecstasy – with the latter winning out in an incandescent Poem of Ecstasy, swiftly and brilliantly negotiated by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski, lifting it clear of the turgid swamp into which Scriabin’s music can often fall. But for all its excess, thunderous organ, vast orchestration and honeyed solos – from lead violinist and principal cellist in particular – its effect pales beside the aching chromaticism and eloquent silences of Wagner’s Tristan Prelude, played here with exquisite focus and powerful restraint. It was restraint, too, which marked out the opening item, a shimmering, delicately sculpted L’après-midi d’une faune.

Jurowski himself is a mesmerising figure to watch: tall and thin as a Giacometti drawing, he’s an athlete and a precision communicator on the podium. At moments of greatest impact he can leap clear of the principal cellist’s f-holes. But even his electric engagement and Barbara Hannigan’s superhuman gifts could not transform Magnus Lindberg’s Accused into the ‘dramatic recitative’ we were promised.

Lindberg is a fabulous composer of orchestral music, who has never claimed to be interested in opera or song, which is what made this premiere so puzzling. His choice of texts for Accused are three interrogation transcripts from different points in history, where the state confronts an individual: the first from the French Revolution, a short, moving appeal for human rights; the second, a banal Stasi cross-examination of a citizen found to be reading the West German Der Spiegel in 1970. The final, hardest-hitting, exchange is between a prosecutor and a Mr Lamo, who betrayed Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning over the Wikileaks affair.

These exchanges are, in theory, pregnant with dramatic possibility. But Lindberg seemed determined to confound his material: Hannigan’s voice became just another instrumental part in a vast, sumptuously seductive texture, spewing out words in an almost continuous ornamental spiel. Very occasionally, her victim status came into focus, with a drooping monosyllable, a stratospheric yelp or a moment of quiet, but for all her versatility and virtuosity, the music refused her access to any characterisation. While Lindberg claimed ‘the dramatic aspect comes from the struggle of the singer against the orchestra’ there were as many times when the harmonies acted as halo or iridescent carpet to her line as there were moments of outright combat. Where was the friction?

Weirdly, Accused belonged to an evening of perfumed turn-of-the-century scores, from its triumphalist, technicolour brass opening (quoting from Falla's El amor brujo, sounding distinctly Star Trek) to the vaulting Straussian energy of the first part, teeming, massing, sliding strings in the second, to dry pizzicati and tom-tom beats when we arrived in America. The text on Bradley Manning is super-charged with relevance to this audience, but began to drift on a soporific haze of celeste and harps until a frankly beautiful slow brass carillon brought the work to a close.

Lindberg spoke of aiming to get away from ‘the court room’, to explore  ‘complex constellations’: if the point was to show how easily an audience can be sedated and distracted by beauty, he succeeded.




Artist interview: Magnus Lindberg

Review: Dutilleux Correspondances (Hannigan)


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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