Jurowski’s Revelatory Account of Vaughan Williams’s Last Symphony

26/01/2017

Kancheli, Martinů and Vaughan Williams: Isabelle van Keulen (viola), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 25.1.2017. (AS)

KancheliMourned by the Wind

Martinů Memorial to Lidice

Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 9 in E minor

Giya Kancheli’s Mourned by the Wind was completed in 1988 and was written in memory of the composer’s musicologist friend, Givi Ordzhonakidze, who had died four years previously. The work is scored for a large orchestra with solo viola, and is in four movements. Kancheli is concerned, the concert’s programme note told us, with the concept of “dynamic stasis”. This state is expressed in his “serene, hovering, luminous music that tries to defy the very passage of time itself”. In Mourned by the Wind these kinds of sound images are interrupted by powerful, contrasting and threatening “real-world” outbursts.

And that tells you all you need to know. Though each movement of the work has varied tempo indications the music moves mostly at a slow pace: the solo viola adds comments but is not at any point allowed to dominate the sound picture. The slow-moving music is tonal and very conservative in nature, though the sonorities are sometimes intriguing. On this occasion any intended element of surprise brought about by the contrasting rapid, loud and jagged interjections was undermined by the sight of brass players preparing to play.

Somehow, in spite of such unvaried material, the music managed to retain the audience’s attention for the whole of its 45-minute span, largely no doubt because Jurowski used all his considerable skills to keep it alive and moving. The composer had originally requested at the time of composition that there be short breaks between movements, but these were not now observed. Kancheli was in fact present, and presumably was consulted. He received a standing ovation at the conclusion of the piece: his enthusiasts no doubt included the members of the Georgian and Russian communities who had generously given financial support in order that the performance might take place.

After the interval we heard Martinů’s brief and moving tribute to those massacred when Nazi occupiers destroyed the Bohemian mining village of Lidice, in reprisal for the assassination of their leader Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.

Vaughan Williams’s rarely heard Ninth Symphony has always been something of an outsider in the composer’s symphonic canon, and its enigmatic, elusive nature has more than occasionally resulted in unsatisfactory, uncomprehending performances. One internationally famous conductor who recorded the work was said not to understand it in any way.

Vladimir Jurowski has been a somewhat selective performer of what is loosely described as “English music”, and no doubt sensibly he only conducts works with which he feels a close affinity. His performance of the Ninth Symphony was a revelation. His direction was precise, clear-sighted, yet passionate in nature. There were no woolly edges in either his conception or realisation of the score. The emotional ebbs and flow in the first movement were perfectly pointed, and he obtained perfectly balanced, highly committed playing from the LPO, whose members seemed to relish such insightful conducting. The menacing, disquieting music of the second movement Andante was particularly haunting through being being so well controlled – the emotions were laid bare as a result of being expressed with such directness. The bizarre Scherzo was vividly characterised; the grim, uncompromisingly blunt nature of the last movement was brought out with startling clarity owing to the conductor’s skill in defining textures, maintaining sharp rhythms and generating a high degree of controlled emotional energy.

Whether this symphony belongs in a festival series called Belief and Beyond Belief (this was the second concert) is debatable. Was the composer, an unbeliever aged 85, anticipating the oblivion that he felt would soon overtake him? Even if this was the case he didn’t tell us.

Alan Sanders

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