Jurowski and the LPO Prove Unsurpassable in Britten, Silvestrov and Janáček

29/09/2017

Britten, Silvestrov, Janáček: Jan Vogler (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London, 27.9.2017. (GD)

Britten – Cello Symphony, Op.68

Silvestrov – Symphony No.3 (Eschatophony)

Janáček – Taras Bulba

I wasn’t absolutely clear regarding the precise meaning of the current series of LPO concerts entitled ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’? There is surely a note of the Apocalyptic and the post-Apocalyptic here? Jurowski, in a quite long speech just before the second half of the concert, clarified some of these themes, more of which later.

Britten’s 1963 Cello Symphony is his most important major orchestral work together the Sinfonia da Requiem and the Violin Concerto. From its arresting opening with the soloist’s syncopated multiple-stopping on a solemnly descending scalic bass-line, like a great Baroque chaconne, we are in no doubt that this is a masterwork. As has been commented upon, there are important influences here ranging from: Bach, Purcell, Schubert and especially Mozart for the economy of composition, and subtle re-use of material. Tonight, both soloist and conductor were in complete dialogue with each other. Sometimes Vogler’s contributions were not specifically clear; but I think this was partly due to the Royal Festival Hall’s cavernous acoustic, not really friendly to the cello. Vogler was at his virtuoso best in the brief second movement scherzo (if it can so be called?) with its mercurial recitative-like sudden pauses, answered by ingeniously sotte-voce trumpet chords, certainly a tone of the approaching Walpurgisnacht from Goethe’s Faust. The great processional Adagio with its commanding timpani figure was superbly crafted by both soloist and orchestra, as was the interconnecting Passacaglia finale. The importance the composer gives to the timpani, in all movements, except the second, is little commented upon, but Britten, like Shostakovich, always wrote superbly for timpani, and percussion in general. Tonight, the timpanist did not quite have the sharpness of tone of the timpanist in the Britten recording, the late James Blades. And Jan Vogler, excellent as he was, didn’t always match Rostropovich, also the soloist in that Britten recording. But in general, with superb conducting and playing from the LPO, this was about as good as it can get today. Curiously Jurowski, who usually deploys antiphonal violins tonight placed the first and second violins to his left, with slightly less clarity.

As Jurowski noted in the above-mentioned speech before the second half, ‘Eschatophony’ is a made-up word, but as Jacques Derrida found, there is very little difference between ‘real’ words and invented words, especially if we look into the etymology and genealogy of language/words. As Jurowski noted Eschatophony has a scriptural/Biblical inflection, but it literally means the sound of ‘end times’. Silvestrov started off as basically a traditional, even romantic composer. so, it is unclear (to me) whether the Apocalyptic tone stands in for atonal music (like in Mann’s Dr Faustus), or whether it is the music itself depicting such an event? Or both? As Jurowski told us, Silvestrov was told by no less a person than Theodor Adorno to adopt the twelve-tone technique, and to abandon all that decadent ‘romantic’ influence. Adorno was convinced that the twelve-tone technique would dominate the music of the future.

The Third Symphony takes up the twelve-tone technique, suggested by Adorno, and even goes on to include some of the serial inflections, sounding like Webern. There is even some aleatory sections in the last movement. Indeed, the symphony is brilliantly economic, in the same way that Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony encompasses myriad musical inventions in an amazingly short musical duration. Silvestrov’s symphony, like the Schoenberg First Chamber Symphony, lasts around 22 minutes. But if one listens carefully, there are some beautiful parts of the symphony which include a semblance of traditional lyricism, especially in the second movement. And in the last movement there is an added dimension of orchestral (bird song) colour, a tribute to Messiaen no doubt. The symphony was completed in 1966. Tonight’s programme note writer tells us that parts of the symphony anticipate Silvestrov’s later ‘minimalist shape-shifting style’. I, for one, would be keen to sample this later style, and indeed Silvestrov’s other symphonies. I can’t imagine a better advocate for this music than Jurowski. This is very difficult music to play, but the LPO were on peak form playing this music to perfection, and crucially understanding the music’s idiom. Also, it was a delight to watch the total economy and elegance of Jurowski’s gestures, his precise baton technique, absolutely everything for the music, so unlike the very un-musical rostrum antics which have come into fashion in recent years.

The concert concluded with a powerfully etched rendition of Janáček’s Taras Bulba (originally entitled ‘Slavonic Rhapsody’). Janáček finished it in 1918. The work is informed by the composer’s enthusiasm for the indomitable spirit of the Russian people. As is generally known the work is based on three cathartic episodes in the struggle of the fierce, independent Cossack chieftain Taras Bulba, and his fight against the Polish invaders in which he and his two sons meet gruesome deaths, including public torture and mutilation. Janáček took the story from a work by Gogol in which Taras Bulba, in the concluding apotheosis, has a vision of the greatness of his people. Jurowski conducted a big, bold rendition of the work. The brass, in particular, were in fine form, with the trombones intoning a cutting edge to Taras Bulba’s strongly rhythmic motif. Also, the E flat clarinet depicting the torture/death by beheading of Ostap (one of Taras’s sons) inflected just the right plangent, screaming, wailing tone, set in contrast to Polish march songs of his captors. The organ and triumphant bells rang out in the final and noble apotheosis.

Later I played the classic (1961) Ancerl recording with the Czech Philharmonic. Ancerl is more convincing, especially in the cutting intrusions of the brass, also the aptly grainy woodwind. But today I can’t imagine anyone surpassing Jurowski and the LPO.

Geoff Diggines

For more about LPO concerts click here.

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