A Challenging Programme from Michail Jurowski and the LPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ligeti, Lutosławski, Schnittke: Johannes Moser (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Michail Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.10.2013 (GDn)

Ligeti: Lontano
Lutosławski: Cello Concerto
Schnittke: Symphony No.1


Ligeti, Lutosławski, Schnittke – that’s not exactly a crowd-pleasing programme, and yet the gargantuan Festival Hall was almost full. How to explain the intense interest? Discount student tickets seem to have played a part, and then there’s the fabled Rest is Noise Effect, conferring mass appeal status on anything it touches. But whatever tricks were pulled to draw the audience, they liked what they got. This wasn’t an easy programme by any means, and seemed to get more intense as it went on, but the audience sat in rapt attention throughout, and conversations during the interval seemed to be about little other than the music of the first half.

The theme of the concert was “Behind the Iron Curtain”, but thankfully the most clichéd programming choices were sidestepped. The concert began with Ligeti, but rather than Atmosphères, the usual choice from his 60s scores, we got Lontano instead; and from the  sonorist school we got the Lutosławski Cello Concerto, where lazier programmers would automatically have turned to Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. And in the second half, Schnittke’s First Symphony, a work of some notoriety, and certainly of great historical significance, but a difficult listen by any standards.

This evening’s conductor, Michail Jurowski is the father of Vladimir, and a respected figure in his own right. He is physically frail, though, and his technique is based on economic gestures. He doesn’t project the sense of visceral energy that characterises his son’s performances, but his more measured  approach has its benefits too, his patience, combined with the high standard of orchestral playing, bringing clarity and poise to this often knotty music.

Ligeti’s Lontano was written in West Germany in 1967, ten years after the composer had defected from communist Hungary: very much music from in front of the Iron Curtain then. Still, it uses techniques and harmonies developed in Warsaw in the 50s – Schnittke uses them too in his First Symphony; he called them his “Polish Techniques” – so it qualifies on a technicality. The music here is all chromatic clusters, intense and shimmering, even at the quietest dynamics. The performance really benefited from the quality of the LPO’s string tone, all dark, glowing colours that added an extra dimension to Ligeti’s inscrutable sounds. It was all a bit dry, though, formulaic and even stilted at times. This isn’t the sort of music that benefits from rubato, but a bit more passion from the players for the music’s admittedly introverted energy wouldn’t go amiss.

The Lutoslawkski Cello Concerto was a similar case. Cellist Johannes Moser has an approach to the work that works better in its individual moments than in its overall conception. He emphasises the distinctions between the basic material, the repeated notes and the continuous held textures, all of which he plays without drama and often without colour, and the wildly gesticulating outbursts, which he exaggerates, sometimes to the point of parody. His physical gestures don’t help either, gurning at the orchestra when their interjections cut him off, and big surprise faces to the audience when the music suddenly changes direction. Technically, the performance wasn’t bad, but the music’s gravity and pathos were brushed over in favour of gesture and effect.

As if to compensate, Jurowski took the exact opposite approach with Schnittke’s First Symphony. Although the basic harmonic language of the work is based on clusters and dense atonal harmonies – the “Polish Techniques” – the work is filled with quotations and allusions, usually to lighter music. In other hands, these can offer levity from the intellectual rigour. But Jurowski sees it differently. For him, context is all, and each of these allusions is given a sinister dimension through its placement in the narrative. The excellent orchestral playing helped him to make his point, the calculated precision of the woodwind ensembles, the dark colouring to each of the horn and trumpet solos. Even the improvised violin and piano duet in the second movement, usually presented as a lighthearted jazz break, was substituted with a passage from Schnittke’s worthy but equally serious First Violin Sonata.

The context in which the Symphony was presented helped to highlight many historically significant aspects of the work. The Ligeti and Lutosławski in the first half demonstrated the Modernist culture, even behind the Iron Curtain, that Schnittke was seeking to diversify with his postmodern tricks. Last Friday’s performance here of the Berio Sinfonia offered another instructive parallel. Schnittke did not know Berio’s work when he wrote his First Symphony, and the differences outweigh the similarities. Berio’s stylistic mash-up is all about lightness and grace, to which the intrinsic humour is crucial. Jurowski tonight demonstrated that Schnittke had a different message to convey, not necessarily deeper, but certainly darker: the modern world as chaos with any notions of redemption, or even of order, fleeting and illusory. But there is room in this piece for levity too, and Jurowski could have presented a more comprehensive picture, not to mention a more audience-friendly one, for the sake of a few more laughs.

Gavin Dixon

This concert was broadcast live by BBC Radio 3 and it availible to listen on demand until 6 November at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03f8c83  

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