The week in classical: Winterreise; LSO/Rattle; NYO/Karabits – review

Pizza Express; Barbican, London
Matthew Rose delivers a dream Winterreise at Pizza Express. Plus, happy hour with Simon Rattle and the LSO, and the NYO in outer space

How does classical music attract new audiences? It’s a question that has preoccupied promoters and performers for decades, and slowly, slowly, things are starting to change. The Multi-Story Orchestra and London Contemporary Orchestra are pioneering exciting music in unexpected venues, while bands with longer histories, such as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, emulate the BBC’s Relaxed Proms with informal concerts for all. Last week, Pizza Express, the restaurant chain known for its live jazz, sensed the zeitgeist and for the first time put art song on the menu, while down the road, urbane Simon Rattle once again invited us in for drinks and a chat with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Matthew Rose, the majestic bass known for his comic turns in opera, perched on a stool in the King’s Road branch of Pizza Express like a cabaret crooner broken and bereft at the loss of his love. But for the Frank Sinatra songbook read Franz Schubert: this was the devastating song cycle Winterreise. Gripping the edge of the piano like a despairing drinker clutching the bar, Rose poured out his heart in a performance that will be hard to equal this year – and it’s only January.

A packed audience, seated at tables around the tiny stage, was transfixed. The tinkle of cutlery and glass gave way to stunned silence. Food was left untouched, such was the visceral power of Rose’s storytelling. For those who have heard his mellifluous voice fill an opera house it was a privilege to be in such an intimate setting, to be close to that supreme sense of line, that untapped power just waiting to be unleashed.

Beautifully judged accompaniment came from pianist William Vann, the curator of this monthly art song series. Rachmaninov next. Some vodka with your pizza, perhaps?

The following evening, Simon Rattle hosted another Half Six Fix at the Barbican, a relaxed affair in which the audience is encouraged to have an hour’s injection of high-quality music from the LSO at the end of the working day, perhaps with a glass of something restorative. Rattle, ever the charming and informative host, told us he would open with a piece he likened to Winterreise, Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me tell you. A setting of short, poetic excerpts from Paul Griffiths’s novella of the same name, in which Ophelia tells of her tragedy and imagines a future, it employs only the 481-word vocabulary that Shakespeare allots her. Rattle said it was written for the “astonishing” Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, and astonishing she duly was, her crystalline voice scaling unimaginable heights in a beguiling work that will haunt the memory.

Soprano Barbara Hannigan performs Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me tell you, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle, at the Barbican.
Soprano Barbara Hannigan performs Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me tell you, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle, at the Barbican. Photograph: Mark Allan

But as much as the orchestra shimmered and glowed and rarely rose above mezzo forte, Hannigan’s words were lost in the hall. There were no surtitles or text in the free programme, but audience members were encouraged to download an app and follow the text on their phones. I couldn’t open the app (surely my failing, not the technology’s) so had to guess at what was being sung. All very frustrating, but thanks to screens placed on either side of the hall, we were able to see the performers close up and appreciate some of the imaginative scoring. Without them we would might not have noticed, for instance, that the sound of soft, regular breathing was made by stroking the bass drum with a square of sandpaper.

Rattle paired the Abrahamsen with Sibelius’s final work, his highly concentrated seventh symphony, a piece, like Let me tell you, in three parts but performed in one single movement – a 20-minute riptide of emotion, churning ever onwards until landing on the rocky shore of an uneasy C major resolution. It was brilliantly played, with Rattle the helmsman at his assured best. Look out for more of these Fixes. You could become addicted.

There was more Sibelius at the Barbican last weekend, when the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain came crashing into town. Under their new conductor, Kirill Karabits, they swept into the second symphony with youthful zeal, the strings pushing the sudden crescendos and diminuendos of the opening figure with exaggerated passion, setting a tone of heightened emotion that ran through the entire piece, even in the beautifully played pianissimo pizzicato of the second movement and the heartfelt oboe solo of the third. All this energy occasionally got in the way of phrasing and finesse, but there was no denying the power of the bracingly optimistic final melody – a vision of hope for the future, surely exemplified by these fine young players.

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain taking over the Barbican last weekend.
The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain taking over the Barbican last weekend. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Earlier, they had entertained with a bravura display by the percussion section, brought to the front of the stage for Rick Dior’s Science Fiction, an unashamed celebration of the trashiest sci-fi movies of the 1950s. Flying saucers, men from Mars, hideous monsters and giant scorpions raced around on a big screen while the orchestra did its best to deafen the audience. It wasn’t great music but it was great fun.

Deadly serious science is the subject of John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic, the story of J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the bomb. Adams took the music and reshaped it as a symphony in 2007, admitting that much of it was influenced by sci-film film scores. It is frenetic and heartfelt, reflecting both the race to make the bomb and Oppenheimer’s remorse at the monster he created. The music’s frantic figurations were expertly handled by the strings, interspersed with hot blasts of raging brass and thunderous percussion, but several times – despite some fine solo performances – a sense of direction was lost in the challenge to meet the score’s myriad technical demands.

Star ratings (out of five)
Winterreise ★★★★★
Half Six Fix: LSO/Rattle ★★★★
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Karabits ★★★★


Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

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