Mahler and Messiaen: Barbara Hannigan conducts the LSO and Aphrodite Patoulidou at the Barbican
Many composers have attempted to capture the intricacies of the afterlife, from its beauty to the anxiety associated with it. What lies beyond? And what does Paradise entail? These were the questions that seemed to be on the minds of Messiaen and Mahler, and they provided listeners with some answers in their compositions performed at the Barbican Centre by the London Symphonic Orchestra last night. The audience was treated to exceptional music, transported to a world of ethereal, mystical and occasionally unsettling soundscapes. Under the skilful guidance of singer-turned-conductor Barbara Hannigan, the LSO captured the nuances of Messiaen and Mahler’s works, conveying silky harmonic transitions and sudden mood changes with exquisite precision.
Described by the composer as four meditations for orchestra, L’Ascension: Quatre Meditations Symphoniques premièred in 1935 and reveals Messiaen’s characteristic religious conviction, reflecting his exploration of plainsong, Hindu rhythms and birdsong. The woodwind and brass open the piece with a solemn chorale, setting the tone for the march towards heaven. Harmonies gradually become more vibrant and Wagnerian, building to a grandiose finale where the strings rise slowly but steadily towards the stratospheric final chord of Christ’s ascension. Hannigan’s masterful interpretation of the score brought out its graceful and spiritual essence. Despite the meditative character, there was a distinct rhythmic drive and a lush texture, with a perfect mix of awe and anticipation that kept the listener totally captivated.
Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (composed in 1899-1900 and revised in 1901-10) marked the next step on this heavenly journey. Among his nine symphonies, this one occupies a unique place. From its opening sleigh bells, the composition draws the audience into a bright, exuberant, yet introspective realm, often viewed as an echo of infant happiness and innocence. The initial glittering themes are soon interrupted by dissonance and increasingly anxious, ambiguous tones. In the final movement, a song – Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) – depicts a view of heaven through a child’s eyes. The text paints a picture of blissful pleasures, peace and plentiful food before transitioning to troubling images of slaughter. Soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou delivered a marvellous performance, her innocent and youthful tone carrying an ominous and haunting quality. The final line, “The angelic voices rouse the senses so that everything awakens with joy”, concluded the soprano-child’s praising of the afterlife, leaving the audience feeling transported, if somewhat uneasy.
Overall, this concert delivered on its vow to take listeners into the Infinite, making it difficult to return to terra firma as the lights came on.
Photo: Mark Allan
For further information and future events visit Mahler and Messiaen: Barbara Hannigan conducts the LSO and Aphrodite Patoulidou’s website here.
This concert was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3, and will be available to stream on 18th May 2023 and on Mezzo from 22nd March 2023.