The platform is empty as the conductor, Marin Alsop, enters with four flutes who then proceed to sit in silence as the first downbeat of the evening produces barely audible but blissfully consonant string chords from celestially far off.
A solo trumpet from the rear of the hall then poses a question, repeating it again and again but receiving only puzzlement from the sage-like flutes. This is the mystical world of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, a question which Leonard Bernstein believed was strictly musical not metaphysical. Is the final triad – luminously tonal – the answer? And what indeed was the question? One woman who left the hall to cough loudly just outside was, in Ivesian terms, almost part of the piece. Perhaps the question had to do with the nation’s health issues?
Whatever. This being part of the South Bank’s Bernstein Project it seemed only fitting that Bernstein himself should be the one to go in search of answers to the unanswered question. Armed with W.H.Auden’s epic poem “The Age of Anxiety” that’s exactly where he boldly ventured with his Second Symphony. Part symphony, part piano concerto, this intriguing odyssey marries the spirit of Auden to the compositional gamesmanship of Bernstein.
It opens with the loneliest sound in the world: two clarinets – nighthawks in a big city – mulling over the big question “What’s it all about? And that question begets another, and another, as Bernstein sets off on a quizzical sequence of variations, each one quite literally coming off the notational tail of the one before. And when that doesn’t bring answers, we party. Only Bernstein could pull a Bebop jam session out of a 12-tone row. This is the devilishly tricky “Masque” section of the piece and the one part of the performance where the steely resolve of the soloist Nicolas Hodges could have yielded more to the music’s insouciance. Easier said than done, of course, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
Still, committed playing from the London Philharmonic and much more to come in another of Bernstein’s party pieces - Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. Alsop’s control was exemplary here and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the gradual accelerando over the first part of the finale executed with such skill. But she adopted Bernstein’s now unfashionably upbeat view of the notorious coda and with little doubt that this is in fact a misprint of the true metronome marking and double the speed the composer actually intended the coded message of “triumph under duress” was all but lost in the general rejoicing.