The week in classical: War and Peace; LSO/Rattle; Riot Ensemble – review

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff; Barbican; Kings Place, London
The massed voices of Welsh National Opera win the day in technicolour Tolstoy. Elsewhere, a fanfare for Simon Rattle

Sacrificing Tolstoy’s psychological depth, and great chunks of the action – what, no battle of Austerlitz? – Prokofiev’s 1940s operatic version of War and Peace makes up for its losses in noise and bombast, the latter not entirely of the composer’s making. The parallel between the invading French under Napoleon and the warmongering Nazis a century later was too much for Stalin to resist. Bullied into ramping up the patriotic mood, Prokofiev created a musical epic, with technicolour orchestration and monumental choruses hymning the homeland. It’s not to all tastes yet it’s his operatic masterpiece, of which he produced several versions, never seeing a complete performance.

David Pountney, a russophile who knows how to galvanise a dramatic spectacle, has opened his final season as artistic director of Welsh National Opera with a staging that crackles with energy and conviction. Crisply conducted by WNO music director Tomáš Hanus, cast, chorus and orchestra dazzled, making the most of Prokofiev’s gift for sweet melody soured by wickedly adjacent key changes like salt in tea.

Efficiently recycling a wooden, shell-like set from the company’s 2016 In Parenthesis, Pountney and designer Robert Innes Hopkins have created three layers of action, on the stage itself and from a hidden terrace above, all against a pictorial backdrop. The setting is Napoleonic, with generous use of projections, including footage from Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966-67 film War and Peace. The receding chandeliers of the ballroom are as believable (almost) as the bodies, horses, gunfire and flames of war. It’s a legitimate approach that works. Prokofiev had been to Hollywood. He was a man of the cinema. Eisenstein, with whom he collaborated on Alexander Nevsky (1938), was due – what a thought – to direct the premiere, postponed by politics and rewrites.

Tolstoy’s hundreds of characters have been reduced by Prokofiev and his co-librettist, Mira Mendelson (later his wife), to around 70, with many of WNO’s excellent large cast, notably David Stout (Napoleon) and Simon Bailey (Field Marshal Kutuzov), taking multiple parts. Jonathan McGovern, ardent and persuasive, did his utmost to flesh out the troubled figure of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, a shadow of Tolstoy’s original but endowed with the opera’s most lyrical music. Lauren Michelle as Natasha shone as far as the role allows, from impetuous feather-head to field nurse at the dying Andrei’s side.

The most satisfying figure, in part because his frequent presence gives us a chance to know him, in part because Mark Le Brocq portrayed him outstandingly, is that of Pierre Bezukhov, rich, socially awkward; a man without purpose yet idealistic, sensitive and questing. It was sung in English, from a new performing edition (with additions) and a rather stiff translation by Katya Ermolaeva and Rita McAllister. I missed the rich sounds of Russian.

Welsh National Opera’s War and Peace – trailer

Prokofiev was still revising War and Peace when Britten began work on his Spring Symphony (1948-9), entirely different in its mood of rampant, postwar optimism but sharing that passion for massed voices and large orchestra. These settings of English poets, from Spenser to Auden, rang out thrillingly around the Barbican hall as part of a British programme with which Simon Rattle launched his second London Symphony Orchestra season, complete with soprano Elizabeth Watts, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and tenor Allan Clayton, the London Symphony Chorus and three choirs from Tiffin school spilling into the auditorium.

This bracing concert opened with the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Donum Simoni MMXVIII, a short yet colossal fanfare that swells from an initial growl of low tuba and trombones into great blocks of sound, which shatter into near silence then rear up again, dying away with the deep chatter of a solo tuba. Next, the LSO made the hushed textures of Holst’s radical Egdon Heath (1927) sound crystalline as well as mysterious. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Dispelling the Fears (1994-5) united Rattle’s past and present: the brilliant trumpet soloists were Philip Cobb and Gábor Tarkövi, principals of the LSO and Berlin Philharmonic respectively.

Repeating the Britten on Tuesday, this time with Janáček’s Sinfonietta, Rattle continued this cleverly conceived relay on Wednesday: Janáček, its blaze of wild exuberance shaking the senses, with Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Janine Jansen was the matchless soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto. Such interconnected programming sharpens your listening.

Luminate, a series of contemporary music concerts at Kings Place, is essential for anyone who cares about the new (the next is 12 October). The inaugural concert, by the Riot Ensemble and focusing on Philip Venables, explored memory, nostalgia, greed, sex, anarchy, all in an hour. What more do you want?

Watch the LSO, conducted by Simon Rattle, perform Janáček and Sibelius at the Barbican, London, 19 September 2018.

This piece was amended on 23 September to correct the title of the Harrison Birtwistle piece


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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