Flashes of brilliance as Thomas Adès takes to the podium, plus the best of May’s classical concerts

Thomas Adès conducting Anne-Sophie Mutter and the LSO
Thomas Adès conducting Anne-Sophie Mutter and the LSO - Mark Allan

London Symphony Orchestra/ Barbican ★★★☆☆

When a composer as brilliant as Thomas Adès takes to the conductor’s podium you can be sure of something special.  The conventional conductor’s poise and grace are of no interest to him; he wants to burrow inside the music, using whatever lunging gestures might be useful, and pull out those bewitching quirks of rhythm and harmony he might have composed himself.

Which is why much of the music in last night’s concert had the Adès stamp of nervous rhythmic energy and luminous moments, whether it was two late ballets by Stravinsky (Orpheus and Agon), his own recent violin concerto Air, or the great late violin concerto Partita by the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski.

In these latter two pieces Adès ceded pride of place to the star violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, resplendent in a florally embroidered mustard-yellow gown. In Partita, Adès and the players supplied the nervously energetic backdrop, a succession of glacial stillnesses, shocking eruptions and shimmery percussion-and-piano arabesques. Above this Mutter draped a succession of phrases, sometimes fierce (no violinist has a more immense sound) sometimes veiled and pleading. It was altogether riveting.

Adès’s own recent concerto Air was at the opposite pole of tranced stillness. It began with fragile sounds emerging from silence at an immense height, which then descended in slow steps, accreting weight and heft. Among them was Mutter’s violin, almost inaudible at first, but soon developing that steely strength that is her hallmark, until eventually she dominated everything. As the skein of melodies fell they renewed themselves from above, like a slow-motion waterfall. By shifting a note here and there Adès eased this endless rhapsodic falling into new harmonic areas, like a ship whose course is altered by a mere touch on the tiller. It was entrancing at first but by the end felt over-extended. Beauty is of course a wonderful thing, but it can become enervating if sustained in one tone for too long.

There was no danger of that in the ballets by Stravinsky, a composer who never allowed an idea to outstay its welcome. The first, Orpheus, is a mysterious veiled piece which needs an aloof serenity to shine, but this performance took a long time to settle. The calm tread of the harp at the opening seemed uncertain, the violin solo of the Air de Danse felt oddly over-intense. It was only when violence broke through the ultra-civilized surface of the music, as Orpheus is torn apart by the Furies, that Adès’s intensity felt exactly right.

The other ballet Agon is in Stravinsky’s ultra-lean, athletic late style. Here Adès was absolutely in his element, and like all conductors who tackle this piece drove the music hard – only more so. Adès was so eager to move on each tiny movement seemed to tread on the previous one’s heels. It’s undeniably thrilling to have something shoot by so fast you can hardly grasp it, but one day I hope to hear a performance of this piece that actually allows the music to breathe.


Sphinx Organization at the Wigmore Hall
Sphinx Organization at the Wigmore Hall - The Wigmore Hall Trust

Sphinx Organization, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆

The US non-profit Sphinx Organization is dedicated to increasing racial diversity in classical music – an aim that is shared by our own Chineke! Orchestra. Last night, five musicians from that American social justice organisation (one pianist and a string quartet) marked their debut at the Wigmore Hall by celebrating a huge variety of classical music from black and Latin-American composers. The programme spanned almost 140 years, from the British trailblazer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in 1893 to music written in the new millennium.

Mother and Child, composed in 1943 by William Grant Still, was a beautifully fashioned response to the idea of motherhood, which in this performance by pianist Michelle Cann and cellist Sterling Elliott took on a nice balance of dignity and tenderness. Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson’s Movement for String Trio of 2004 spun finely honed melodic lines over an elegant Bach-like “walking bass”, ruffled now and then by an anxious note. The second movement of Florence Price’s Piano Quintet had a lovely reflectiveness with a folk-like tone.

Despite these more serious moments, the prevailing tone of the evening was joyous, set right at the outset with the Latin-flavoured pluckings of the appropriately-named Strum for string quartet by the 40-something Jessie Montgomery,  and the stamping rhythms of Tania Léon’s Tumbao, flung out at the piano with gleeful energy by Michelle Cann. The whole concert was infused with a free-and-easy charm, whether it was the individual players introducing pieces from the platform, or coping with the mishap of violist Michael Casimir breaking a string. This normally brings an awkward silence while the new string is fixed, but here the hiatus was entertainingly filled with Michelle Cann’s exuberant recreation of the long-lost art of “ragging” (i.e. jazzing up) a well-known classical work – in this case Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor.

Finally came the Piano Quintet in G minor by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composed when he was a precociously gifted student at the Royal College of Music. Any thought that Coleridge-Taylor was a composer of beautifully refined but somewhat slender salon-type pieces was blown out of the water by this grandly impassioned work. It received a performance of huge yet finely controlled energy, with beautifully eloquent give-and-take between the four string players; my only quibble was that Michelle Cann’s very full tone was a little over-bearing in the lighter passages. In all it was a fine climax to an evening that shone a light on composers we know all too little. IH

Sakari Oramo conducting at the Barbican in 2023
Sakari Oramo conducting at the Barbican in 2023 - Mark Allan

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican ★★★★☆

Sometimes a great performance can lift inspired-but-flawed works to a level where you could almost think they were masterpieces. So it was last night at the Barbican, where the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Sakari Oramo led performances of three English works spanning the century from 1909 to 2009.

The most recent work, Oliver Knussen’s Cleveland Pictures came first. Knussen, a much-loved figure as conductor and composer until his death in 2018, was a maker of exquisite, glittering musical contraptions. So it’s no surprise that when he decided to base an orchestral piece on seven artworks at the Cleveland Museum of Art, two of them would be fabulously ornate clocks by Louis Comfort Tiffany and the House of Fabergé. They tick-tocked at amusingly different speeds, amid showers of bell sounds and radiant horns. On either side of the clocks were Rodin’s Thinker, which strove for weightiness but didn’t quite achieve it, Velázquez’s court jester, which reminded me of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, St Ambrose and finally a fragment of a piece inspired by Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Parliament. This fizzled out before it had barely started, and I couldn’t help feeling the beautifully evanescent close of St Ambrose – held with perfect control by the players – would have made a better ending.

Then came the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola by the 18-year-old Benjamin Britten. As you’d expect it was precociously brilliant, the opening skyrocket gestures flung out with tremendous panache by violist Lawrence Power and violinist Vilde Frang. The piece didn’t quite live up to the brazen confidence of that opening, despite some beautifully lyrical to-and-froing between the soloists in the slow movement. The balance between terse, percussive material and lyrical effusion seemed awry, and the orchestral busyness between the soloists’ contributions was often too long (it was a bad sign that the soloists at these points seemed to be inspecting the Barbican’s ceiling). But their rendition of the beautifully rapt, intimate ending made one forget the faults.

Putting all this in the shade by its length, grandeur and sheer volume was the Sea Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which sets poems by Walt Whitman for orchestra, chorus and two soloists. Whitman’s windily mystical effusions about sea-ships voyaging on the sea’s “heaving bosom”, and invocations to “O Soul, the actual Me” have always left me cold, and it takes a really large-hearted performance to win me over to his vision. Fortunately, this was one. The serious Finn on the podium has always had a real feeling for the transcendental strain in early 20th-century English music, and he urged the BBC Symphony Chorus, the baritone Morgan Pearse and soprano Silja Aalto and the orchestra to give their all – and more. They gave it, and if Pearse’s odd diction was a small blemish on the radiant tumult, there was no doubting his sincerity. At the end, Oramo held the final mysterious, hushed chords – as the Soul sails off into the unknown – for what felt like an eternity. IH

Hear this concert on BBC Radio 3 on June 11, and for 30 days thereafter on BBC Sounds

Ermonela Jaho, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆

The Germans and French do song, Italians do opera. That’s the conventional wisdom as to how the Great Powers of classical music divide the territory between them.

It’s the mission of Opera Rara, the organisation that revives little-known operas, to put us right on that score. They’ve decided to also champion Italian song, and have launched a project to record all 200 songs of Gaetano Donizetti, best known as the composer of Lucia di Lammermoor and other masterpieces of bel canto opera. And they’re presenting them in a series of song concerts, in which Donizetti’s gems are set off nicely by other jewels of Italian and French song.

The second concert in the series was given by Ermonela Jaho, the Albanian-born soprano who wrung our hearts as Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera some years back. She proved that she doesn’t need the full-blown apparatus of opera to touch us; a slender little three-minute song about disappointed love will do just as well. Her voice has a tremulous, melting quality, and also a lightness and radiance that make it absolutely right for this repertoire. It’s hard to imagine her responding well to the heavy pathos of Hugo Wolf or Brahms.

Having said that, the concert got off to a slightly shaky start with Donizetti’s Ah, ungrateful one!, which lay uncomfortably low for Jaho’s voice. Things started to gel in the third song, Eternal Love and Fidelity, where she found a fierce decisiveness. It was in Donizetti’s lament for his rival Bellini – generous in feeling given how sneery Bellini had been towards him – where she found that wonderful spun delicacy and sublime tenderness that are her trademarks. She demonstrated a special way of intensifying those feelings in the last line of a song, and part of the pleasure of this concert was knowing that, however exquisite her sound was in the body of the piece, it would be even more so at the end.

It wasn’t all about pathos. Jaho threw off Verdi’s rollicking drinking song Brindisi with style. There were moments of florid display, as in Gounod’s Serenade, where feeling took a back seat to virtuosic lyricism – a quality that also shone out in two violin pieces by Donizetti, played with just the right salon sentimentality by Marco Rizzi. Compared with German song, the piano parts of Italian songs can seem a little thin, and sometimes pianist Carlo Rizzi, though always tactful and intelligent, seemed a touch too dry; a bit more pedal when Jaho repeated the gentle melody in Donizetti’s lullaby wouldn’t have gone amiss.

At the end, though, Jaho transfixed us with Donizetti’s tale of a fisherman seduced by the goddess of the lake. It passed from twilight mystery to flirtiness and then to the tragedy of the man’s drowning, a progression to which Jaho gave just the right degree of pathos, without overdoing it. Like several of the other songs, it was really a miniature operatic scene – perhaps conventional wisdom isn’t so wrong after all. IH

Watch this concert for 30 days at Wigmore-hall.org.uk/video-library


Peer Gynt, Bergen Festival, Norway ★★★★☆

Peer Gynt at the Bergen Festival
Peer Gynt at the Bergen Festival - Thor Brødreskift

Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt is loved by millions who never give a thought to Ibsen’s play. The latter is a wild and strangely moving thing, which recounts the adventures of the picaresque, feckless anti-hero Peer. He disappoints his mother, abandons the girl who loves him, meets the King of the Trolls and a mysterious being known as the Boyg, travels to North Africa and has an affair with the Bedouin chief’s daughter Anitra, and then returns home to find many years have passed. It is enormously difficult to stage, and to hear the play together with the music Grieg composed for it is a rare experience, even in Norway.

Thanks to the enterprising Bergen Festival, we can savour this joint creation of two echt Norwegian geniuses, performed by the Norwegian National Theatre with Grieg’s music performed by the Bergen Philharmonic and conducted with a sharp awareness of its subtle colours by conductor Thomas Søndergaard. The mise-en-scène of this semi-staged production couldn’t be simpler: a black stage in which almost the only visible thing, apart from the eight or so actors, is a constantly replenished rain of foam from above, a glistening mound into which characters wade, seem to be drowned, and then reappear – an apt metaphor for their slippery nature.

It’s a forbiddingly austere setting for one of the most colourful plays ever written. But the performances directed by Johannes Holmen Dahl are so mythically larger-than-life one hardly notices, and Ibsen’s wonderful verse is rendered so musically that even non-Norwegian speakers can relish it (while grasping the meaning from the English surtitles above). Ågot Sendstad as Peer’s mother Åse is loving even when she despairs of her son, and her death, when Peer realises his restless adventuring has made him neglect one of the only people who truly loves him, is the most moving moment of the evening. Herbert Nordrum, best-known for the Oscar-nominated Norwegian film The Worst Person in the World, catches the strange divided soul of Peer, seemingly indifferent to everything but adventure but increasingly haunted by his faults.

And then there’s Grieg’s music, floating up magically from the orchestra below and the black-clad chorus looming in the background of the action. One imagined the well-known pieces such as “Morning” would be too sentimental for the shadowy and often savage drama on stage. In fact, a mysterious chemical fusion takes place: the music’s warmth lends a humanity to the stage doings, while the play reveals a latent strangeness in the music one doesn’t usually notice.

This was especially true of those numbers we normally don’t hear because Grieg never made them into concert pieces, such as the swirling music for the shipwreck (here amusingly changed into a plane crash), and the deeply strange music Grieg composed for the mysterious Boyg, which reminds us he often anticipated the “modern music” to come. In all it’s an exuberant, mysterious and moving production, and well worth catching in Oslo in the summer when the Norwegian Opera and Ballet will present it. IH

The Bergen Festival continues until June 5; fib.no; production also on in Oslo from  Aug 17-Sept 12 (operaen.no). See the Bergen Philharmonic’s programme at harmonien.no


States of Innocence, Brighton Festival  ★★☆☆☆

Rozanna Madylus (as Eve) in States of Innocence
Rozanna Madylus (as Eve) in States of Innocence

The 350th anniversary of the death of John Milton, creator of Paradise Lost – the greatest epic poem in the English language – has not been greeted with any great fanfare. No one has turned his immense confrontation between God and Lucifer into a videogame, or an exciting animation. Maybe his poetry is simply too grandly ornate and lofty, the sentences too long and rolling. Compared with Milton, Shakespeare seems a model of accessibility.

So all praise to the Brighton Festival for bucking the trend by commissioning writer Peter Gant and composer Ed Hughes to create a fantasy opera imagining Milton’s struggles to create his huge poem. Their idea was to set that struggle in the context of Milton’s domestic environment, mingling the characters in the poem with characters in his household. On the stage of the Corn Exchange theatre, we saw alongside Milton himself his wife, who also doubled as Eve in the Garden of Eden. We saw Adam, we saw an Assistant who at times was Milton’s Quaker friend Thomas Ellwood and at other times Satan.

These characters roamed among some minimal props – a dining table bearing apples, whose importance in the fall of Adam became very evident later – and a writing desk. To one side was a chorus of four women who commented on the action, and in the middle, taking up the lion’s share of the stage were seven instrumentalists of the New Music Players, conducted with unobtrusive precision by Andrew Gourlay. On a giant screen behind the players we saw fragments of Milton’s poem in his handwriting, and religious tracts of the time.

All this could have yielded something interesting, but alarm bells rang when I read in the programme book that Paradise Lost is “the perfect text with which to think freely about questions of power and resistance in the present”. What this actually meant was: Paradise Lost, as it stands, is unacceptable. All that stuff about Eve betraying Adam is just so patriarchal, and not really fit for polite company.

So in “States of Innocence” we were shown Eve (doughtily played by Rozanna Madylus) rebelling against Milton’s portrayal of her as the guilty party. To make sure we couldn’t possibly miss the point, Gant invented a second character, an “image of Eve” sung with stratospheric agility by Rachel Duckett, who helps Eve combat God and man.

One had to guess at the details of this rebellion, as so few of the words were audible. But even so, it was clear that the doctrinal and political disputes that animate the poem were taking second place to something that isn’t in the poem at all, ie feminism. The result was that Milton’s occasional agonised meditations on sin, even though they were sung with huge authority by great Wagnerian baritone John Tomlinson, felt somehow superfluous. That, plus the soft-focus and overly florid score by Ed Hughes, made for something peculiarly lightweight. What was once a cosmic drama about sin and redemption was reduced to a piece of moralising earnestness that felt more Victorian than edgily modern. IH

The Brighton Festival continues until May 26; brightonfestival.org


268 Years of Reverb, Octagon Chapel, Norwich ★★☆☆☆

James McVinnie playing Jonny Greenwood's 268 Years of Reverb
James McVinnie playing Jonny Greenwood's 268 Years of Reverb - Kristaps Anskens

The beautiful Octagon Chapel in Norwich has resounded to organ music for most of its 268 years. Over that vast tract of time, those ancient pipes and brick walls must have absorbed innumerable sounds and their echoes. Imagine if they could be magically released: what would they sound like?

That was the appealing idea behind 268 Years of Reverb, the latest opus from the lead guitarist of Radiohead-turned-classical composer Jonny Greenwood. He’s an omnivorous collector of instruments from Indian lutes to electron theremins, but in recent years he has become fascinated by the sound of the organs in the ancient churches near his home in northern Italy, many of which were damaged in the earthquakes of 2016.

But don’t imagine that Greenwood has now taken to writing busy, finger-twisting fugues à la JS Bach. His new piece, composed for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, is about static as music can be without coming to a dead stop. It began with a long, long note in the bass region, to which eventually a second was added. The first dropped out, and then a third was added. It soon became clear: a process was doggedly unfolding, which slowly accreted more and more notes, like an anchor being dragged through seaweed. And so it went on – for eight hours.

It sounds like a recipe for boredom, and it mostly was. To be described as boring is not a knock-out blow to Greenwood’s piece: far from it. Boredom in modern music has a distinguished pedigree, stretching back to Erik Satie’s turn-of-the-20th-century piano piece Vexations, which lasts a whole day, and John Cage’s 1987 organ piece As Slow as Possible, which is currently being “performed” by a computerised organ in a church in Germany, and should conclude in 2640. Compared to that Greenwood’s piece is a mere bagatelle.

But it was long enough to test the idea that by focusing on minute changes in the sound, we can go beyond boredom and enter an ecstatic state – and reader, I confess that I did not. Granted, those shifting chords did take on an intriguingly blurry quality. They trembled, almost as if the two organists – the heroic James McVinnie and Eliza McCarthy, who alternated in one-hour shifts – were playing melodies. As the sunlight streaming through the windows moved slowly round, and the audience came and went and fell asleep, it was intriguing, for a while, to hear the shifts, the aural equivalent of fog banks out at sea which seem to coalesce and then disperse.

But the sound was relentlessly monochrome, which was surprising for a composer as sensitive to aural colours as Greenwood. Could he not have made use of the organ’s clarinet and trumpet stops, and ventured upwards to the occasional high note? It was hard not to feel that having hit on his ‘process’ Greenwood let it do all the composing for him. It may be that some of the audience stuck it out to the bitter end, but they were starting to drift away long before. I have confess I was among them. IH

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival continues until 26 May. Nnfestival.org.uk

Kirill Karabits with the BSO for his last performance as chief conductor
Kirill Karabits with the BSO for his last performance as chief conductor - Mark Allan

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Lighthouse Poole ★★★★☆

When it comes to bold concert programming, it’s not necessarily the London orchestras that lead the way. Back in the 1980s and 90s it was Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; for the past 15 years it’s been the Ukrainian chief conductor of the BSO Kirill Karabits who’s often set the pace, unveiling fascinating works by composers from the ex-Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, that most of us had barely heard of. And like Rattle, he charmed and cajoled his audience into following him.

So Karabits’s last concert as chief conductor in the orchestra’s home base was bound to be an emotional occasion. There was a packed audience at the Lighthouse, which gave him a standing ovation before he’d conducted a note.  At the end someone pressed a generous bouquet into his hand – which Karabits, in a nice gesture, passed on to violist Jacoba Gale, who was retiring after 44 years.

There were no Eastern European discoveries in this concert, just a series of familiar masterpieces, conducted by Karabits in a way that reminded us why he’s been one of the finest (and curiously underrated) chief conductors in the UK. There were some sly nods to his Ukrainian loyalties: the programme contained the evergreen 3rd Piano Concerto by Prokofiev, who was born in the Donbas, and the soloist Alexander Gavryluk was born in Ukraine.

Before this came the Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin, the ballet by Béla Bartók that lacerates one’s feelings and one’s ears with its nightmare vision of urban violence. It seemed especially lacerating on this occasion, the bass drum and xylophone and piano sounding positively diabolical –though Karabits made sure we felt the sweetness of those moments when human feeling enters the scene.

There was more diabolism in Prokofiev’s concerto, this time tinged with gleeful humour. Gavryluk gave a huge, romping performance, bursting with personality and responsive to the unexpected moments of intimacy. Just occasionally he seemed overwhelmed by the orchestra’s sheer exuberance. Balance can be a problem in the Lighthouse’s super-bright acoustic.

For Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony the orchestra had to find a different, pitilessly austere sound, and an unremittingly intense world of feeling – which they did, magnificently. As he has done so often in the past on that same platform, Karabits displayed an unerring sense of pacing, a sense of how to place the shattering climaxes and the occasional wan sunbeam of hope and optimism to maximum effect. He was helped by eloquent solo playing, above all the pathetic, lost sound of oboist Edward Kay in the slow movement, and the sweet tone of the orchestra’s leader Amyn Merchant in the first, shining out amidst the tragedy.

Impressive though it was, this performance would have made a somewhat grim farewell. To leave us in better spirits Karabits and the BSO offered something beautiful but also mysterious: the Farewell Serenade by fellow Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov, a piece whose ineffable gentleness, beautifully played by the orchestra, came as a healing balm. IH

The BSO and Kirill Karabits perform Voices from the East, a celebration of music from Eastern Europe, at the Royal Festival Hall London SE1 on 19 May; southbankcentre.co.uk

Dinis Sousa with Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique
Dinis Sousa with Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique - Paul Marc Mitchell

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, St Martin-in-the-Fields ★★★★☆

Since it was launched back in 1989 by John Eliot Gardiner, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique has revealed the music of the post-French Revolutionary period in all its bright colours and fervent romanticism. It’s now tackling the nine symphonies of the most revolutionary composer of them all, Ludwig van Beethoven, performing them in the dazzling St Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square.

However, it was not Eliot Gardiner on the podium. He’s not been seen in public since he allegedly lost his temper and punched soloist William Thomas after a performance at Berlioz Festival last August. Since then the orchestra’s young associate conductor Dinis Sousa has stepped in to cover, and it is he who is conducting for this five-day series. But could he find the fire and depth of his one-time mentor?

The signs at this opening concert were that he can – and will – with one caveat. It was a gloriously optimistic affair, with three works all in C major, a shrewd move as it gave the evening a special colour, radiant and confident. The first piece was an overture from a ballet about Prometheus bringing fire to mankind – a “Beethovenian” theme if there ever was one; then came his astonishing First Symphony, and finally the rarely-heard Mass in C major.

Sousa’s rhythmic drive soon became evident. He launched the very first chord of the overture to Prometheus with a gesture like a batsman aiming at the boundary, and the explosion that resulted made us jump out of our collective skins.

In the First Symphony, there was beautiful elegance while in the Mass, pathos and anguish entered the picture. Like Gardiner, Sousa is keenly aware of the meaning of words of the Mass. He made sure the Monteverdi Choir – rich and full-blooded in sound as always – caught the pleading quality of “miserere nobis” (have mercy upon us), and they found an especially harsh sound for “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” (and was crucified also for us).

The orchestral players gilded these moments with their plaintive descending phrases. Sousa was fortunate to have in the front of the choir four soloists – Lucy Crowe, Alice Coote, Allan Clayton and bass William Thomas – who were as individually fine, and beautifully blended, as any quartet I can remember in recent years.

My quibble would be that though the performances brilliantly caught Beethoven’s urgency, Sousa did tend to drive the music rather hard. Let’s hope as the series unfolds Beethoven’s Olympian spaciousness will come to the fore, as well as his tender lyricism. IH

The ORR’s Beethoven symphony series continues until 18 May; stmartin-in-the-fields.org


Conductot Martyn Brabbins
Conductot Martyn Brabbins

BBCSO/Brabbins, Barbican ★★★★☆

The centenary this year of Luigi Nono’s birth is not being celebrated as widely as the radical Venetian composer deserves, though the challenges of any such undertaking are easy to see. A couple of decades ago, the BBC Symphony Orchestra might well have devoted one of its famed annual monographic composer weekends to an exploration of Nono’s music, but in place of such three-day festivals it now offers single Total Immersion days: even so, it still shied away from an all-Nono event, packaging him instead as part of an Italian Radicals programme featuring four composers.

If that sounds more like a paddle than complete immersion, Sunday’s events represented excellent programming. Nono and two other composers born in the 1920s, Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio, were put in the spotlight alongside their slightly older contemporary Luigi Dallapiccola. Through film, a concert with Guildhall School musicians and talks by Jonathan Cross (professor of musicology at Christ Church, Oxford) and Harriet Boyd-Bennett (associate professor or music at Nottingham University), the day offered a rare exploration of the leading figures who shaped Italian music after the second World War.

Theirs was a politicised world, and they were socially as well as musically radical. But none was more politically engaged than Nono, whose Canti di vita e d’amore lay at the heart of the evening’s main concert by the BBCSO. All Nono’s works are a reaction to human suffering, yet all his music ends in some sort of hope. The first of these three “songs” with orchestra commemorates Hiroshima and opens explosively; featuring four timpanists and a battery of other heavy percussive hardware, the burden is orchestral but the excellent soloists Anna Dennis (soprano) and John Findon (tenor) held their own. Dennis was searingly intense in the unaccompanied middle movement evoking the Algerian resistance and was joined hauntingly by Findon in the final love song.

The other highlight was a chance to hear music by Maderna, a great figure of Italian modernism and indeed a former guest conductor of the BBCSO. His Oboe Concerto No 3 (1973) was his last work, and perhaps hindsight allows us to hear its upwardly floating textures as valedictory. Yet a playful opening as the solo oboe pipes out high notes is echoed in more subdued fashion at the close. Nicholas Daniel was superb, catching the work’s whimsical fantasy, and the orchestra’s shimmering sea of pointillist delicacy was beautifully controlled by the conductor Martyn Brabbins.

Relating to his opera Ulisse, Dallapiccola’s Three Questions With Two Answers is an imposing orchestral edifice that despite a final, unanswered question finds its own resolution. A little earnest, perhaps, it still represents serialism at its most lyrical and Italian — all the composers featured were, in one way or another, connected to the opera house.

Berio could hardly have been represented without one of his solo Sequenzas (here Sequenza IXc, an arrangement for bass clarinet, given a growlingly sonorous performance by Thomas Lessels) or his celebrated Sinfonia. Radical in 1968, the Sinfonia has in some aspects not aged well, but it flowed strongly under Brabbins. Its centrepiece, a reupholstering of the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony and some other musical landmarks, remains undeniably brilliant and drew a tour de force from the BBC Singers. JA

This concert will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on July 1, and will be available for 30 days on BBC Sounds


Game Music Festival, Southbank Centre ★★☆☆☆

The Last of Us composer Gustavo Santaolla
Game on: The Last of Us composer Gustavo Santaolla - Lukasz Rajchert

Friday night brought an unusual crowd to the Royal Festival Hall. Crowded round the bar were excited troupes of vaguely medieval-looking half-human creatures who turned out to be friendly. I had a nice chat with a High Elf Rogue, a Githyanki Fighter and a Drow Paladin, all sipping on healthy fruit juices. I haven’t seen so many pointed furry ears since that David Attenborough documentary about desert foxes.

These humans dressed as characters from the video game Baldur’s Gate 3 were there for the Game Music Festival, a day-long celebration of what is fast becoming one of the most widely heard musical genres in the world. You’d think such a festival would feature a range of composers, but – for reasons the music did nothing to justify – each of the two concerts was actually focused on just one composer. First, the Argentinian-born Gustavo Santaolla, composer of the score for the dystopian horror-fest The Last of Us, and later the Bulgarian-born Borislav Slavov, who scored the neo-medieval game Baldur’s Gate 3.

The earlier concert devoted to The Last of Us at least had the virtue of some hummable songs. Santaolalla was a singer-songwriter in various rock bands in the 1970s, and though he’s now grey-haired and frail (he had to be supported as he limped gingerly onstage) he found the energy to pick out some sentimental ballads on his guitar. He even sang a banging heavy rock number at one point, which must have been utterly alien to the young crowd but which they loved nevertheless. The “atmospheric” moments between the songs couldn’t have been duller: single held notes, queasy string slidings, thudding “doomy” rhythms on drums.

Slavov’s music for Baldur’s Gate 3 evoked a very different world of dangerous quests through castle-studded mountains. Two sopranos, Mariya Anastasova and Ilona Ivanova, sang a few songs in wan, androgynous voices that were exactly right for their vaguely Celtic “far away and long ago” quality.

Interspersed with these were chugging, dark “let battle commence” type numbers, and big heroic pieces evocative of huge landscapes apt for deeds of daring-do. They were painted in the kind of soaring horns and massive simple harmonies familiar from John Williams’s film scores, but with none of the variety that’s needed to make simplicity interesting. Phrases were always repeated literally, so instead of gathering energy the melodies simply stopped when they ran out of steam.

The Philharmonia Orchestra could have played such four-square stuff in their sleep, but they put on such a good show of being engaged that this kitsch-fest at times seemed almost enjoyable. IH

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