Jurowski’s Frantic Beethoven 9th Fails to Satisfy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Anderson, Beethoven: Emma Bell (soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), John Daszak (tenor), Gerald Finley (baritone), London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.3.2014. (JPr)

Julian Anderson: Alleluia for chorus & large orchestra

Beethoven: Symphony No.9 (Choral)

At a gala concert in 2007 Vladimir Jurowski opened the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall with Julian Anderson’s specially commissioned Alleluia, a choral setting of tenth-century Latin verses known as the ‘Alleluia Sequence’; the word ‘Alleluia’ occurs at the end of all ten verses. In a programme note Anderson describes how in his own 15-minutes composition ‘Three musical sections are played without a break. First, a dense orchestral mist from which choral melodies reminiscent of plainsong emerge. Then a vigorous choral-orchestral dance, ending with a choral cadenza, Finally, the longest part, mainly slow, which explores the word ‘Alleluia’ alone. Here the orchestra includes a number of unusual instruments such as steel drums.’

Jurowski raised his baton for Alleluia and I thought I heard the faintest wisp of a melody but it was soon obvious that this was from someone’s phone in the audience because the conductor turned round and glared at the perpetrator insisting it should be turned off ‘completely’. When the ‘music’ began properly we heard the typically agitated discordancy of a twenty-first century work with an intrinsic collage-like rhythmic complexity that might owe something to Messiaen. It was underpinned up by the usual over-involved battery of percussion including, this time, a Holzklapper. More often than not – and as here – ‘modern’ music is underpinned from time-to-time by the baleful intonations of a tuba.

I am delighted that living composers get the opportunity to have works commissioned and performed but those that I get to hear all sound almost exactly the same and it is as if a number of themes for a bigger work – that the composer will never probably have the opportunity to write – are all put together as a sampler. The difference with this Alleluia was the involvement of a valiant chorus who during one particularly feverish section were asked to become a rabble, just shouting out their alleluias. For me there was just too much orchestra and as a choral piece it would have worked much better with a simplified – more mystical – accompaniment. Julian Anderson is composer-in-residence with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and seemed so delighted to hear his Alleluia again that he enthusiastically clambered somewhat awkwardly onto the podium to congratulate Vladimir Jurowski, choir and orchestra.

After only a short pause it was on to the main event. I appreciate that under Vladimir Jurowski’s direction the London Philharmonic Orchestra continues to rank among this country’s most disciplined and exceptional ensembles. I find he can lead some performances displaying intelligence and grace, but others that are often somewhat misguided. The use of the Ninth Symphony as the ‘European Anthem’ – and that it is played on many occasions of national celebration – is well known. So Beethoven’s passionate, evocative ‘heart on his sleeve’ testament of his democratic idealism and longing for peace throughout the world should be performed – in my humble opinion – with this in mind and not – like here – as if everyone concerned had a plane to catch. (In fact the morning following this concert the conductor, along with the orchestra and soloists were apparently due to catch the Eurostar for a follow-up performance in Paris!)

Jurowski’s frantic Ninth Symphony lasted 61 minutes and I was left with a profoundly hollow and unsatisfying feeling and wondering what all the fuss is about. I have to admit I have only heard it live a few times and maybe Jurowski was faithful to the composer’s metronome markings but I would have preferred a more flexible Romantic approach to allow many sections that seemed harried here to breathe and sound freer. I accept many people in the sold-out Royal Festival Hall will have liked this account of the Ninth Symphony performance more than I did. In the programme there is a reviewer’s quote about the same piece conducted by Klaus Tennstedt in September 1992 that describes how ‘The listener sits on a knife-edge throughout, as if on a stage-coach drawn by galloping horses on a precipitous mountainside road’. The unnamed critic’s impression then was the same as mine here – but in March 2014 I could not go on and describe the ‘ride’ on which Jurowski took us all as in anyway ‘exhilarating’.

I appreciated the nod towards period instruments in the use of smaller timpani, valveless trumpets and a controlled sound from the horns though this in itself might have been responsible for the lack of excitement I felt. After a suitably suspenseful opening the storm that seems to be brewing never seemed to arrive in the percussion and brass. The second movement had more conviction because it naturally alternates between stomping angst and manic glee with only the trio section providing some repose from all the bluster. In the Adagio, despite some tenderness from the orchestra’s tone, as the main thematic material was repeated it all got faster and faster like a torrent of water picking up speed to wash away all before it. The first tutti of the finale continued the chaos but soon gave way to a more plaintive sound from the cellos (who were impressively led by Kristina Blaumane, who often played as if this was a cello concerto) and was a further hint at what might have been. However, Jurowski continued to pursue a headlong momentum over heightened drama as Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ approached.

An uneven vocal quartet did not help matters and they all would have clearly benefitted from a slower tempo: the baritone Gerald Finley sang his opening solo, ‘O Freude’ with great clarity and a burnished authority but perhaps his wonderful entry would have had even greater impact from someone with more body at the bottom of their voice. John Daszak brought clarion tone and fine phrasing to the bumpy tenor line Beethoven allots him in the ‘Turkish music’. Soprano Emma Bell sounded rather shrill at times when cutting through her part and although the mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany has even less to sing than the others she made a noted contribution to the ensemble work because of a rich chest voice.

The final verse of Schiller’s poem, ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen’ resonated in its declamation because of some spirited singing by the London Philharmonic Chorus. Despite this – and a further cranking up of the tempo – real ‘Joy’ seemed more restrained than it should. All united for the florid version of the first verse and an urgent and ecstatic paean to the ‘Tochter aus Elysium’ (‘Daughter from Elysium’) drove everything on towards the final bars that were not as exultant as they might have been with a different conductor who is probably not so reliant on the score in front of him as Vladimir Jurowski always appears to be.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the LPO’s forthcoming concerts this season and next visit www.lpo.org.uk.