Hope without hope: Mark-Anthony Turnage – L’espoir (from Speranza, World Première)

by 5:4

There’s an interesting small addendum to be made to my article a couple of days ago, reviewing recent CDs. i commented that LSO Live has released the world première performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s large-scale orchestral work Speranza, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding. However, what the disc doesn’t contain is the entirety of the piece as heard on that first occasion. Anyone in the concert hall or who (like me) heard the live broadcast may be forgiven for feeling some dismay at discovering one of the most curious but lovely parts of the piece to be entirely absent from the CD release. Turnage initially conceived Speranza in five movements, each titled with the word ‘hope’ in different languages, and it’s the original fourth movement, L’espoir, which he appears to have decided to excise from the work. Considering the pair of interviews i’ve heard where Turnage discusses Speranza, one could perhaps have seen this coming; on both occasions (once prior to the performance, the other on the BBC’s The Strand Archive), Turnage’s description of the five movements rather skirts over the fourth, almost apologising for it, both in terms of compositional individuality—with reference to the use of borrowed melodies, which Turnage states “I did nothing to actually”—and also aesthetic, essentially dismissing it as “a real moody piece … more of a textural piece, which is unusual for me, just chords and rather desolate tunes”.

i don’t think there can be any question that Speranza survives having one of its limbs removed, although whether it’s an improvement is another matter. My suspicion is that Turnage, aiming emphatically for directness in the piece (which he attributes as the principal reason for its accessibility), came to the conclusion that L’espoir was too equivocal to maintain meaningful continuity, especially when positioned, as it was, right before the final movement. Yet that final movement is so direct in its language—arguably the most accessible music Turnage has ever composed—that it can easily absorb and ultimately sublimate those elements of ambiguous tension brought about by L’espoir. Furthermore, the music in L’espoir, precisely because it isn’t as direct as the other movements, brought a poignancy to Speranza as a whole that was, i think, entirely to its benefit. Despite Turnage’s description, L’espoir isn’t really texture music at all; in keeping with the other four movements, melody is etched into its very grain, shared predominately between the woodwinds, given extra power by the brass. They’re beautiful enough in their own right, but the context Turnage creates for them is pure magic: tremolandi shimmers that wax and wane in sympathy with the melodies’ emotive contours, forming a kind of mandorla around them. Turnage sets the seal on this wistful radiance with a number of unsettling creaking groans from a lion’s roar, moments when the adversity from which L’espoir‘s hope arises becomes too much.

Compared to the other four movements, L’espoir presents a much more conflicted and strained form of hope, which Mark-Anthony Turnage may have concluded was just too raw for his overall message. But to me, it’s the truest and most eloquent part of Speranza as originally conceived, and removing it therefore deprives it of something profound and moving. Hopefully, Turnage might reconsider that decision, or at least make L’espoir available as a stand-alone piece; in the meantime, here it is, in all its tear-stained glory.

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