Jurowski Leads a Fascinating Russian Evening.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shchedrin, Myaskovsky, Denisov, Rachmaninov: Tatiana Monogarova (soprano), Sergei Skorokhodov (tenor), Vladimir Chernov (baritone), London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 29.9.2012 (CG)

Rodion Shchedrin:  Concerto for Orchestra No 2 “The Chimes” UK première
Myaskovsky:  Silentium Op 9 (1911) UK première
Edison Denisov:  Bells in the Fog (1988) UK première
Rachmaninov:  The Bells – Choral Symphony, Op 35 (1912-13)

What a fascinating programme! Four very different Russian works, including three UK premières, performed by a Russian conductor and three Russian soloists.

Jurowski is a refreshingly “no nonsense” conductor. He cuts a dashing figure as he bounds onto the platform with a shock of long black hair, turns to the orchestra, and guides his forces clearly in a thoroughly musicianly way. There’s a lot of sensitivity and no histrionics. The rapport between him and performers is evident from the word go; what you get is concentrated music-making of a high order.

The name Rodion Shchedrin is apt to arouse mixed reactions, but to many he is the leading Russian composer of the post-Shostakovich generation. The Concerto forOrchestra no 2 – The Chimes made an impressive concert opener; I suppose you could describe it as an “effects” piece. It is certainly vivid and colourful, commencing with quiet string dissonances, and then continuing with brash clusters from the brass, woodwind chatters, some virtuoso timpani passages, and of course prominent use of chimes. Later in the piece there is some very flamboyant brass writing, superbly played by the LPO’s brass, and there’s a fair amount of energy and excitement in the faster orchestral passages too. It is often sinister and even scary, but the gunshot with which the work ends didn’t come off. I did feel the piece outstayed its welcome eventually but if it frequently felt influenced by Polish composers – Penderecki and Lutoslawski – that isn’t to say it doesn’t have its own special character. I would have welcomed some stronger material, though.

Nikolai Yakovlevich Myaskovsky (1881-1950) taught Shchedrin as well as Kabalevsky, and Khachaturian. The composer of twenty-seven symphonies and numerous chamber works, he was thought of as one of the three most important composers in the Soviet Union alongside Prokofiev and Shostakovich. After a period of neglect, at least in the West, his music is being revived. Silentium is an early work and is based on Silence – a Fable by Edgar Allan Poe and follows the text quite closely throughout; it is predominantly dark and brooding and stylistically owes far more to the nineteenth century than looking forward to the twentieth. Unfortunately, brevity may not have been one of Myaskovsky’s stronger qualities, and I found the unremittingly doom-laden textures a little hard to take for nearly twenty-five minutes. However this reviewer was fascinated to hear a quote, repeated several times, from his own Poirot theme emerging in one or two places – how very clever of Myaskovsky to have hit on the same rising note pattern! Notwithstanding that, once again I could have done with some stronger thematic material overall, although Jurowski and the LPO did everything in their power to bring the work to life.

Edison Denisov’s Bells in the Fog was also too long for its own good. The title explains everything, really; bells – this time mostly tinkling bells, mainly from the vibraphone, celesta, glockenspiel and tubular bells – interspersed with high clusters from the strings and woodwind. Similar textures and patterns pervade the piece through nearly all of its sixteen minutes, except for some loud interruptions later on. What to say about it? I would have been happy with four or five minutes, but please not sixteen…

The best was yet to come!

The Bells,Op. 35, was composed after the first two of Rachmaninov’s symphonies, but before the Third. It was his favourite work. It is cast in four movements and is scored for a large orchestra, choir, and three soloists; soprano, tenor and baritone. We are back in Edgar Allan Poe territory here, the text being The Bells, translated into Russian by Konstantin Balmont, a Russian poet.

Rachmaninov was staying in a flat that had belonged to Tchaikovsky when he wrote this wonderful music, and some of his predecessor’s influence seems to have rubbed off. Its emotions are strong, ranging from the angst-ridden to the sublime; you have to be a pretty miserable specimen not to be moved by it. When reviewing this same work once before I said “his use of the orchestra is brilliantly virtuosic, alive with brilliantly vivid colours, and always sure-footed. Rachmaninov’s extraordinary harmonic sense is here in abundance – glowingly chromatic, yet always with a firm sense of direction.” There’s no need to modify my view, except to add that tonight it was the choral writing which also needed special mention.

I loved every moment of this. Jurowski did too. His was a studied approach, obviously well rehearsed, with detailed loving care apparent throughout. The soloists were terrific; Sergei Skorokhodov (tenor), in the first movement, Sleigh Bells, Tatiana Monogarova (soprano) in the second, Wedding Bells, and Vladimir Chernov (baritone), in the fourth movement, Funeral Bells. Monogarova in particular was simply spellbinding, with her expressive lines soaring above choir and orchestra. You could almost forgive those members of the audience who clapped after her movement; but not quite – the spell was nearly broken.

The London Philharmonic Choir and London Symphony Chorus sang their hearts out too – I can’t imagine better. And throughout, the orchestral playing was just marvellous; if I single out Sue Bohling for her lovely cor anglais solo in the last movement, it doesn’t mean that all the other solos weren’t played with the same degree of musicality and expression.

It’s the very end of The Bells which particularly gets to me; the final modulation into the major is surely one of the great moments in all music. It would have been so easy for Rachmaninov to end on a dark note, but as the poem speaks of “the stillness beyond the grave,” we are at peace, perfect peace. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

Christopher Gunning