Jurowski and the LPO Stunning in Henze’s Seventh Symphony

17/10/2016

 Stravinsky, Zimmermann, Henze: Thomas Zehetmair (violin); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 15.10.2016. (CC)

Stravinsky – Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947 version); Variations (Aldous Huxley In Memoriam)
Zimmermann – Violin Concerto
Henze – Symphony No. 7

It is great to see some music one can actually get one’s teeth into featuring in high-profile concerts. After the London Sinfonietta’s highly stimulating concert of Sciarrino, Berio et al at St John’s just days before, the focus shifted to larger-scale works. But there was little softening of the concentration required, from both performers and audience. This was a challenging programme technically for the orchestra, too: a pre-concert talk on Henze, expertly given by Guy Rickards, had to close dead on 6.45pm so that the percussionists could slot in some extra rehearsal.

The audience need not have feared to be left in isolation. The talk and the programme notes were supplemented by Jurowski’s spoken introductions from the podium, which, despite some inevitable duplication of either or both of the above, nevertheless included the text of the Hölderlin poem (in English translation) that inspired part of the Henze. Of which more later.

First, though, the relatively approachable Symphonies of Wind Instruments in the 1947 version, preceded by Jurowski’s plea/statement of optimism addressed to the audience that “I really hope you stay to the end.” Jurowski’s rather protracted introduction preceded a splendid performance, emphasising the Cubist, juxtapositional structure of the piece. His ultra-concise gestures (he used a baton) surely helped the accuracy of ensemble, his keen ear in evidence in the chordal balancing.

The ritualistic aspect of Symphonies of Winds linked to certain parts of the Variations (Aldous Huxley In Memoriam), where Webern-like cells are thrown around the orchestra. Yet it still sounds like Stravinsky, particularly in the “dancing” flute and bassoon variation. This is a phenomenal piece that deserves many more outings.

Violinist Thomas Zehetmair has made some sterling recordings of twentieth-century violin concertos: see my 2002 review of his disc of concertos by Hartmann, Berg and Janáček. His expertise was on display in the performance of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 18-minute Violin Concerto of 1950 (a commission from South West German Radio). Zimmermann’s music is almost the dictionary definition of pluralist: Stravinsky, Hindemith, jazz, composed folksong and plainchant all co-exist in this magnificent work. The LPO played with a superb incisive delivery. The first movement, ‘Sonata’ (actually a truncated sonata form) was given a driven, propulsive account under Jurowski, the brass superbly incisive. The creeping bass lines against a quasi-improvised violin in the second movement ‘Fantasia’ led to unmistakable statements of the ‘Dies Irae’ before the Rondo finale, stunningly scored, intrigued: a rumba in expressionist clothing. It’s worth noting that Zehetmair has also recorded the Zimmermann Concerto with Holliger on ECM.

The symphonies of Hans Werner Henze cry out for more performances. Rickards had worked his way through the canon in his talk, taking them one at a time. The Seventh marks Henze’s re-engagement with his homeland as well as showing some influence of Hartmann. Commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker for its centenary celebration in 1982, it was eventually premiered in 1984. Cast in four movements, it echoes the Germanic symphonic tradition of first movement sonata form, slow ABA second movement, Scherzo and Finale (this last inspired by that Hölderlin poem referred to earlier, Hälfte des Lebens, and reflected the poem’s bipartite structure). The orchestra is huge, and includes heckelphone and contrabass clarinet as well as an extended percussion department. Henze’s trademark magical sonorities were in evidence from the start, with Jurowski eliciting beautifully-drawn washes of sound set against a glittering 7/8 time signature. The slow movement opens with expressive cellos destabilised by harp. Glorious, silvery sounds dissolve into nothingness; after a lovely oboe and harp duet, a Mahlerian processional takes the music into supremely dark places.

There’s no missing the Beethovenian slant to the Scherzo, here crossing with the contrasted mix of the airiness of Mendelssohn and Wagner at his most concentrated and chthonic. A disquieting combination, for sure. The finale begins in hyper-Romantic, lush fashion with Mahlerian muted brass in the background. After the central pause, percussion-studded heaviness leads to a huge climax that resonates on and on. This is a phenomenal piece and it was given with high expertise.

It was a real privilege as well as a pleasure to attend this stunning event.

Colin Clarke

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