In this edition of the Barbican’s Half Six Fix series, the London Symphony Orchestra play two iconic and highly influential pieces from the 1890s, Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.
Also Sprach Zarathustra is a tone poem based on the Nietzsche novel of the same name. Film fans will best know the work for its iconic opening, “Sunrise”, popularised by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in numerous parodies ever since. The rest of the work takes us through selected chapters from Nietzsche in nine sections.
Highly dramatic and atmospheric, it’s easy to see why the piece was selected by Kubrick, who was known for his keen ear for classical music. What’s harder to understand is why the rest of the work remains in comparative obscurity, given the exceptional quality of its composition.
The nine sections are played with minimal pauses, but represent astounding musical variety as the three notes of the opening are transformed and developed. During this presentation the titles of each section were helpfully displayed on screens to help the uninitiated (like me) navigate the work. And the London Symphony Orchestra were on their usual form, blasting out the most instantly recognisable three notes in classical music.
It was accompanied by Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, also based on a literary work, this time a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. There are shades of his Claire de Lune in the themes, and the piece enjoys a comparable delicacy throughout. This is Debussy at his finest, lulling us into a dreamlike state from the moment of its opening flute solo.
The piece was good enough to win over the initially sceptical poet who left its first performance won over to the idea of having music based on his work, personally thanking Debussy for his efforts. Both pieces were given commentary by the conductor, François-Xavier Roth, who got the orchestra to play sections so he could draw our attention to specific elements.
This type of concert is disappointingly rare in the cliquey world of classical music, which all-too-often aims only at those ‘in the know’. The problem is that most people don’t know classical pieces inside out, so providing some additional information, as well as telling people what they’re listening to at any given time, seems to be a small compromise to make the art form accessible to a wider audience.