United Kingdom Nikodijevic, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky:Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 26.4.2014 (CS)
Marko Nikodijevic: cvetić, kućica…/la lugubre gondola
Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 (‘Emperor’)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 (‘Pathétique’)
‘The Familiar Made New’ would have been an apt sub-title for this intellectually and musically engaging concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted with a characteristic blend of acuity and passion by Vladimir Jurowski.
Marko Nikodijevic’s cvetić, kućica…/la lugubre gondola: funeral music for orchestra after franz liszt [sic lower case] is an orchestral ‘re-composition’ of Liszt’s late piano elegy, La lugubre gondola. The latter is said to have been inspired by a premonition of Wagner’s death that Liszt had when he was a guest at the composer’s Palazzo Vendamin on the Grand Canal in Venice in 1882. Nikodijevic explains that the first half of the work’s title, which means ‘little flower, little house’ in Serbian, describes ‘a drawing in the notebook of a five-year-old Kosovo-Albanian girl whose body was found in a refrigerator lorry sunk in the Danube by Serbian police in 1999’. The work is dedicated to her memory.
The Serbian composer was awarded the Gaudeamus Prize for cvetić, kućica…/la lugubre gondola in 2010, and in this first UK performance Jurowski made a convincing case for the work. The score is prefaced with a quotation from Edgar Allan Poe’s The City in the Sea: ‘While from a proud tower in the town/ Death looks gigantically down’. The funereal mood was immediately established by Cyrille Mercier’s beautiful, lamenting viola solo. The lone voice became a plaintive duet, enlarged by clarinet and uncanny percussive colours, to be joined by sustained celli and flutes; the tones and overtones accrued like mournful keening, underpinned by the double basses’ dry percussive pizzicati.
It seemed a remarkable aural embodiment of Poe’s ‘hideously serene’ sea, the bows of the violins barely moving as the players sustained long, intangible chords, like a distant faint moaning. But, growling tremolos from the double basses suggested something was astir, as if the inky black stillness of the lagoon concealed deeper currents and surges. When Wagner died in Venice in February 1883, the funeral procession to Bayreuth began with a gondola journey to Venice’s Santa Lucia railway station. Here, the resigned melancholy of the waters was increasingly disturbed, and there was a sense of both interminable gliding forward and shuddering lurches, both physical and emotional.
Nikodijevic paints a kaleidoscopic sonic canvas, producing stunning, idiosyncratic timbres from his orchestral resources: soaring muted glissandi on celli and basses, whispering muted trombones, a panoply of percussive colours – marimba, gongs – and an amplified pianino. The latter’s rippling scalic motifs sliced through the sustained chords of alternate desks of first violins, then rang out like a tolling bell to the accompaniment of piercing violin harmonics, flutes and piccolo.
The musical fragments are infinitely inventive – although at times some of the multitudinous details were lost, such as the solos for first and second violin which were somewhat swallowed by the woodwind. And, despite Jurowski’s impressive command of the work’s span and architecture, perhaps the expressive slowness is insufficiently countered by momentum or climax. But, maybe that’s the point: Nikodijevic depicts a world ‘Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best/ Have gone to their eternal rest’.
One might have expected Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto to sweep away such elegiac introversion with flamboyant bravura, even bombast. However, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and Jurowski had something far more refined and subtle to say.
Restraint, clarity, poise: these were the touchstones of a performance that was more Classical than ‘Romantic’, yet clearly articulated the progressive nature of the work’s language and form – the expansive breadth of the opening movement, the soloist’s relative retreat from the exposition after the first few bars; and the seamless transition from the Adagio to the Rondo. Indeed, the ‘nickname’ was not Beethoven’s and, as this performance convincingly suggested, is counter to the sensibility of the composer.
If refined and restrained, Andsnes’ performance was undoubtedly poetically resonant. And, despite the complexities of the score and the technical challenges for the soloist, the music had a spacious, airy quality. Ben Hudson’s solo bassoon melody in the opening movement was wonderfully fluent and capacious, and Jurowski summoned both rhythmic litheness and melodic fluidity from his orchestra, emphasising the broad arcs. Andsnes’ tight, crisp trills introduced a propelling tension, particularly in the minor key passages in the development. The recapitulation had a compelling sense of urgency. Overall, this was a dialogue between soloist and orchestra, rather than a battle for supremacy.
Andsnes’ dreamy meandering in the Adagio was entrancing but never without direction, shape, or well-focused tone. The muted string opening had a similar self-composed presence; details, such as the three-note rising motif, wonderfully underpinned the piano’s phrase structure. Rhythmic precision was the order of the day in the concluding Rondo, soloist and orchestra innately responding to the elasticity of the rondo theme. Again, there was a sense of spaciousness; the cleanness of the textures allowed the extremities of register to be readily perceived. It was a delight to hear something so well-known revealed afresh.
As an encore, Andsnes took us back to our starting point, offering a profoundly eloquent rendition of Liszt’s La lugubre gondola I (the original piano piece was published in 1885, with minor amendments, and is known as La lugubre gondola II).
And the sorrowful mood was resumed after the interval with Tchaikovsky’s affecting ‘Pathétique’ Symphony. The composer led the first performance in St Petersburg nine days before his death, and some have described as the composer’s own funeral music. But Jurowski showed us how the composer’s sadness was liberating rather than confining. There was passion aplenty but never indulgence; the first movement’s Andante theme sang with forward momentum. The quiet passages were full of anticipation and urgency, and in general tempi were swift, particularly – and effectively – in the second movement, although grazia was also much in evidence.
The march-like third movement, Allegro molto vivace, was startlingly incisive, even vicious, with some wonderfully playing by the brass. It built to a near-hysterical close; Jurowski’s final sweep of the baton whirled him around to confront the audience with the stare of a man possessed – an embodiment of Coleridge’s enraptured poet, whom we should ‘Beware!’.
Although the antiphonal effects of the string sighs in the concluding Adagio lamentoso were not entirely successful (and I found the placing of the celli and large double bass section to the right resulted in a rather bass-heavy sound at times) the conductor conjured an eloquent despair from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Who knew that lamentation could be simultaneously so troubling and uplifting?