LSO/Rattle at Barbican review: a Julian Anderson premiere made for a dramatic display


he Moroccan-French composer Ahmed Essyad emails his friends early in the 2020 lockdown, describing the empty sheet of paper in front of him. It may not sound the most promising beginning to a major five-part choral and orchestral work by one of Britain’s leading composers. But for Julian Anderson, the “internal exile” enforced by Covid restrictions fed into the larger theme – the displacement of individuals and whole nations – of his new composition Exiles.

The so-called Suite from it heard here given by the London Symphony forces under Simon Rattle’s direction comprised two movements heard last September, plus a new movement, La République des Lettres for unaccompanied chorus, postponed on that occasion for Covid-related reasons. The Holocaust – during which members of Anderson’s Jewish extended family lost their lives in a massacre – casts its shadow over the whole work.

The first of two choirs vocalises the names of individuals – Alma Mahler, Franz Werfel, Hannah Arendt and Golo Mann among them – saved through the efforts of the American diplomat Varian Fry. The second choir intones verses from Psalm 46. Though it was not the original intention, further Covid restrictions required the choirs to sing from the gallery of the Barbican Hall – to considerable dramatic effect, as it happened. The individual chorus members are directed to chant the names at their own chosen tempi, freely varying them.

The result is that, unlike other notable recent ceremonies where names were intoned one by one, here they are embedded in the texture. Similarly aleatoric (random choice) devices are deployed to create some of the most arresting passages of the psalm setting, describing the shaking of the mountains and the burning of the chariot in the fire.

In the third movement, another psalm text (“By the waters of the Babylon”) is delivered in Hebrew, as though to emphasise the alienating remoteness of exile, while a soprano soloist (Siobhan Stagg) delivered the first of two well-chosen, expressive poems by the late Romanian composer Horatiu Radulescu.

Whether Exiles lives up to the full potential of its harrowing theme will only become clear when all five movements are heard together, as they will be in Munich on January 20.

Mahler’s Blumine is a movement ultimately dropped by the composer from his First Symphony. He had good reasons, despite the ravishing depiction of “a moonlit serenade on the trumpet blown across the Rhine”. Arguably it’s better heard on its own, especially when given as magically as by the LSO players under Rattle.

Had he not died from tuberculosis, mentally unbalanced, at the tragically early age of 25, Mahler’s friend Hans Rott would surely have enjoyed an illustrious career. His Symphony in E major, of which we heard just the third movement, was not understood in the 1870s, but has in recent years been highly acclaimed. There are astonishing pre-echoes of Mahler’s own work, and it’s precisely the bizarre elements, such as the snatch of what sounds like an unhinged waltz in this Scherzo movement, that make it so fascinating to a modern audience.

The Six Pieces, op. 6, by Anton Webern, which seem to encompass the entire range of human emotion in the composer’s typically terse manner, were exquisitely voiced in this performance.

While there seemed no particular reason to end this intriguing sequence of works with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor, who could complain, when given such a life-affirming reading under Rattle? And perhaps, in this context, the glorious spirit-raising upsurge in the final bars provided reason enough.

Recorded for future broadcast by Marquee TV

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