Jurowski and the LPO in ‘Music from Dark Times’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Webern, Berg, Martinů, and Bartók: Barbara Hannigan (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 27.4.2013 (MB)

Webern: Variations for Orchestra, op.30
Berg: Lulu-Suite
Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
Martinů: Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani

It was good of Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO to dedicate this concert to the memory of Sir Colin Davis, although in reality it was not a very Davis-like programme. No matter: the focus was on ‘Music from Dark Times’, Berg’s Lulu-Suite having been written in 1934 and Webern’s Variations for Orchestra in 1940-1. There seems to have been some confusion concerning ordering: Jurowski at the opening claimed that the programme had been reordered, so that the pieces would be heard chronologically backwards. If so, Martinů’s Double Concerto should have swapped places with the Berg work, the earliest on the programme. As it was, it certainly made some sense for Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and the Martinů to be heard together, though Martinů’s work, despite what was undoubtedly the best performance of the night, could not help but pale into relative insignificance following Bartók’s masterpiece.

Anyone who programmes Webern’s Variations deserves a vote of thanks. It seems extraordinary that we find ourselves just as starved of Webern performances as audiences were decades earlier. A while ago, Pierre Boulez was asked whether Webern was back in purgatory, and responded by asking his questioner whether Webern had in fact ever left. That one of the most important, most intensely expressive composers of the twentieth century or indeed any other still languishes unperformed reflects poorly on all concerned. Whatever the shortcomings of this performance, Jurowski’s enthusiasm could not be doubted, both when he held the score up for applause at the end and when his spoken introduction helped prepare the audience beforehand. There was much to admire: this was highly dramatic Webern, almost as if communicating via a serial version of Baroque Affekt. Pieter Schoeman’s violin solos were especially well judged, sweetly Romantic, even hyper-Romantic, just as Webern’s music demands. However, the LPO’s performance suffered from a few loose ends, including one especially noticeable false entry. Moreover, this was a perhaps surprisingly pointillistic, or indeed intervallic, performance, at least earlier on; sometimes one longed for Jurowski and his players to join up the dots more audibly. It was closer, say, to the Boulez of his first, Sony recordings of Webern than to the later versions on Deutsche Grammophon, though without the pinpoint accuracy. That said, one nevertheless emerged, especially from the later variations, with a proper sense of ‘late Webern’, that is, of straining towards larger, more extended forms. And Jurowski’s commitment was something to treasure in itself.

Berg’s Lulu-Suite immediately sounded more fluid in conception, as if heard in the opera house. The first movement was a little on the fast side, with the effect of somewhat skating over the admittedly beautiful surfaces; at least, if fast, it was not harried. Moreover, if weight had been lacking earlier on, there was an emotional payoff at the opening of the ‘Hymn’ that marks that movement’s conclusion. Dance rhythms were etched sharply, though not didactically. A tighter hand on the formal reins might, however, have put paid to nagging suspicions of sprawl, however wonderful it may be to luxuriate in Berg’s sonic tapestry. (One certainly never harbours such doubts with Boulez or Abbado.) There was excellent saxophone playing to be relished from Martin Robertson. The second movement was altogether tauter, more focused; it really packed quite a punch. Tempi, including transitions between them, were very well judged, simply sounding ‘right’. Barbara Hannigan arrived on stage for the ‘Lied der Lulu’, very much dressed for the role. Indeed, she offered a more ‘acted’ performance than I have hitherto encountered in the Suite, her use of the text very much bound to her visual expression. There was just the right degree of lilt to her performance, as there was to that of the LPO. High notes hit the spot in every sense, and coloratura told dramatically as well as musically. One longed to see her in the entire role. Jurowski balanced his forces and shaped the musical argument well. Berg’s extraordinary cityscape was relished at the opening of the fourth movement, almost as if this were Petrushka, albeit ‘Petrushka im Bauhaus’, with liberally applied sleaze. It was not all dramatic action without a stage though; variation form was audibly communicated throughout. The ending was somewhat abrupt, though. Grim foreboding characterised the closing ‘Adagio’; this was undoubtedly a different world, that of Whitechapel. The darkness of tragedy unfolded, though so eventually did the warmth of that reconciliation the young Boulez found so suspicious in Berg’s later work. Jurowski undoubtedly dug deeper here than in the first movement, and with excellent results; there was more than enough to make one keen to hear him conduct Berg’s operas in the theatre. Hannigan’s reappearance proved harrowing and yet consoling, like the opera itself.

Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta had its moments. The first movement was very good indeed: the build-up potent, emotionally satisfying, with true depth to the LPO strings, expertly guided by Jurowski, their subsiding equally impressive. There was precision, though not always quite enough, in the ensuing ‘Allegro’. Perhaps, though, it was taken a little too fast; at any rate, the performance seemed unable, for whatever reason, to dig deeper, to take the music by the scruff of its neck. Catherine Edwards’s contribution on the piano was, however, excellent. The third movement was nicely alert to the apparent paradox, properly generative, of the clockwork nature to Bartók’s ‘night music’, having one think also of a not entirely dissimilar paradox, or dialectic, with respect to Webern’s ideas of Nature. The finale again seemed too fast to permit the full strength of the strings to shine through, though that may well have been a deliberate ‘lightness’ on Jurowski’s part. There was nothing especially wrong with it, but again, the music seemed skated over at times, almost balletic. A strangely excessive holding back of tempo just before the end caused confusion, seemingly catching the orchestra unawares.

Martinů continues to have his cheerleaders, and this Double Concerto certainly did not find him at his worst; by the same token, it hardly benefited from being performed in the same concert as Webern, Berg, and Bartók. Jurowski and the LPO nevertheless gave the concerto as convincing an account as conceivable; for one thing, it sounded more thoroughly rehearsed than the Bartók and Webern works. Rhythms in the first movement were ominously generative. Stravinskian motor-rhythms were relished, making one long to hear these musicians in the ‘real thing’, for instance the Symphony in Three Movements. Neo-classical – or better, neo-Baroque – form was sharply delineated, the implicit violence of such playing with time rendered explicit. Edwards again proved excellent in the slow movement. Jurowski could not dispel my doubts regarding the apparent emptiness at the heart of the composer’s note-spinning, though he did a good job in trying. It seems that Martinů’s music is attempting to depict turbulence from without rather than actually being turbulent; that, however, is not the performers’ fault. Again, rhythmic command was excellent in the finale. I wish I could have felt more enthusiastic about the music itself, which, despite its apparent ‘excitement’, is little more than derivative. Some Hindemith (the Nobilissima visione Suite?) or perhaps Honegger’s Second Symphony might ultimately have worked better, despite the outstanding performance and the second-half Paul Sacher connection.

Mark Berry