Mark-Anthony Turnage's 'Speranza'

A world premiere performed by the LSO and Daniel Harding


I can’t remember the last time I was so moved by a premiere. Impressed, yes, awe-struck, thrilled, but Mark-Anthony Turnage’s monumental Speranza (Hope) is an act of prayer which goes straight to the heart.

For those who sensed there was more music trying to get round the libretto and out of the pit in Turnage’s recent opera Anna Nicole, this was the major orchestral work waiting in the wings. Cast in five movements, each titled ‘hope’ - in Arabic, German, Celtic, French, Hebrew – the work is inimitably Turnage: the orchestration is lavish, bordering on over-crowded, with cimbalon, harp, trumpets, multiple clarinets and the Armenian duduk (like an untamed oboe, beautifully played by Martin Robertson) taking lead roles; the rhythmic undertow is visceral – this is a composer who loves basses and knows how to use them to maximum effect, like his teacher Knussen; contrapuntal gears grind beneath blazing high alarms, voiced by virtuosic trumpet, and ranks of wind, bells up.

The first, second and fifth movements are constructed around folk tunes, the first Palestinian, the second an Israeli children’s song and the last one a Jewish folk tune. As the poetry of Jewish-Romanian Paul Célan was the original inspiration for the work, these scraps of melody come freighted with significance: while the Israeli song sits in the ‘German’ hope, the Palestinian and Jewish songs are separated, but yearning musically for resolution. The opening movement presents a vast, apocalyptic sonic landscape with tremendous depth of field, out of which trumpets and the duduk cry out, interspersed with glimpses onto another, gentler world expressed by harmonious flutes. The second part winds hypnotically around a slow, descending melody. Originally written out in 4/4 he had revised it to lend it a sense of limping irregularity, ably executed by Daniel Harding and the London Symphony Orchestra. The third Scherzo is thunderously dynamic with flashes of big-band blasting through, while the fourth, true to its ‘French’ title, is an exploration of colour, shimmering with tremolo xylophones. The final Jewish melody blossoms into a majestic surge, pulling motifs from the work together. It ends with a threnody for solo strings, and the piercing duduk keening on and off pitch.

Turnage’s initial plan was to write a work about suicide. The very act of creation, for these resplendent forces, is an expression of hope, even if the tale it tells is tragic. He can throw too much into his melting pot, but recently there’s been a new cogency in his writing; however battle-scarred, this music is waving, not drowning. Harding rose to its unwieldy challenges with impressive clarity, acknowledged by the composer’s heartfelt embrace at the end.

In the first half Lars Vogt mesmerised with a virile but subtle reading of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. The control of this German pianist is formidable, his imagination unfettered: revered by other musicians, he is hardly the household name he should be. His encore, of Chopin’s C sharp Nocturne, was a miracle of evanescence.

Mark-Anthony Turnage is composer in residence at LSO until 19 February

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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