Unforgettable Prokofiev and Shostakovich Performances from London Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lindberg, Prokofiev, Shostakovich: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano),  London Philharmonic / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, (GD) 24.9.2014

Magnus Lindberg    Chorale
Prokofiev   Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26
Shostakovich   Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op.65


In concerts of this kind, which begin a programme with a contemporary work and end with a modern grand symphony, a fashion has developed where, very often,  a Prokofiev piano or violin concerto is sandwiched in between.  Would it not be a good idea to occasionally deviate from this kind of programing and play a work like Pascal Dusapin’s brilliant 2002 Piano Concerto? Dusapin is a major French composer whose music is very seldom played in London, if at all. But tonight the choice of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto proved to be a blessing, largely because of the total empathy offered by both pianist and conductor. But it was not just a case of empathy; this was one of those rare occasions where there was a total accord (dialogue) between soloist, conductor and orchestra. Efflam Bavouzet’s miraculous playing was another rare event, in being able to fully merge in with the orchestral part (the dialogue between soloist and conductor) but also demonstrating an incredible range of virtuosity.

 After a brief introductory  Andante the  first movements Allegro, with the ‘grotesque’ flavour of the oboe, accentuated by pianissimo castanets, initiating myriad off-centre A minor themes and a brief, but terse set of 4 crescendo bars Efflam Bavouset’s first entry sounded so in tune (as it were) with all the tonal ambiguities and harmonic sideslips of this miraculous music. Later on in the movement, this ‘first theme’, after negotiating crucial tonal shifts from C minor to A minor, recurs twice at much greater length and transferred to the soloist.  Efflam Bavouzet’s scurrying semiquavers here and in the development section, also his imitation of a ritornello articulated on the C pedal in the quasi recapitulation, had to be heard to be believed!

 The second movement Tema con variazone was a model of thematic and tonal contrast. The five variations were played as both a whole sequence of interrelated themes, and as a series of musical opposites. The rapport between pianist and conductor was particularly apparent in the conversational sequences (as in variation 4) with fantastical sounding muted strings. The last variation which marches noisily along with constant piano accompaniment, denoted a certain ‘burlesque’, or ‘carnivalesque’ mood compellingly realised by both pianist and conductor. In the finale all the high spirits and ‘luxuriant warmth’, of the middle section, were fully realized, with both soloist and conductor finding a note of  brittle irony in the ostensibly ‘bright’ flourishes of the C major coda.

 Throughout the LPO responded to every one of Prokofiev’s, the conductor’s and soloist’s demands, the woodwinds and horns sounding particularly resplendent. Efflam Bavouzet gave two delightful encores: first, ‘ La Fille aux cheveux de lin’, ‘The girl with the flaxen hair’, from Debussy’s first book of Préludes; and second, the rousing piano Toccata by Massenet. Both played with an elan and finesse (especially the Debussy prelude), and both sounding so French!

 The concert opened with Magnus Lindberg’s short (around 6 minutes) Chorale. From its simple title and economic duration Chorale initially seems to be a kind of homage to J S Bach, Lindberg has used themes from Bach and other baroque composers in other works. And in many ways it can be seen, or heard in this manner. But if listened too with more focus (maybe after the third hearing) one soon begins to realise that Lindberg’s whole design is not  simple and certainly not straight forward. As tonights programme note writer observes; …’it is not a straightforward return to Sibelian or Beethovenian theme-and- development…’Some of Lindberg’s developments of the chorale can take us into remote territory, but just when Bach’s hymn seems far away, its distinct, reassuring features can be made out again’. Chorale, in one sense is in the form of a soundscape (Lindberg inflects this with the sounds of nature) a composition of discontinuity arousing the feeling of timelessness or of  vast expanse.   Bach, in one sense can seem very distant from us, but his music is strangely relevant to our own age (one only has to cite the way that contemporary film directors have incorporated many aspects  of Bach’s music in their films) this post-modern mixing from different genres almost takes on the resonance of Theodor  Adorno’s ‘The Redemption of an Illusion’. To make the whole line of musical narrative and clarity more complex and elliptical  Lindberg often develops multiple layers with different tempos within varying tonal constellations. Lindberg deploys one of Bach’s most famous chorales from Es ist genug (‘it is enough’) from the church cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort ( Oh ‘Eternity, thou thunderous word’). Also used by Alban Berg in his haunting Violin Concerto.The main chorale theme, which dissolves and returns throughout, is projected through woodwind and brass surrounded by another Lindbergian feature, an aura of string harmony (similar, but not quite, to the halo Bach uses for certain recitatives in the cantatas and larger devotional works) Jurowski conducted  again with compelling empathy. This is no doubt in part to do with Lindberg’s current post as the LPO Composer in Residence. The tutti passages, where the chorale theme is more fully intoned, projected a wonderful glow and warmth, despite the Festival Halls notorious dry acoustic.

 Jurowski plunged the audience and orchestra into the opening commanding 7-note idea, ff in celli and basses (I counted 10 double basses,in two rows to the left of the orchestra,perfectly complimenting antiphonal violins.) an idea that,in a range of tonal registers, some distant, pervades Shostakovich’s massive 8th Symphony in its entirety. This initial C minor opening affirmation soon subsides into a complex range of tonal/harmonic vicissitudes, emanating from C minor, and which wander through long paragraphs which involve alternating sections of the whole orchestra at various sustained levels of p,pp, initially in 5/4. All this incredible range of sustained pp is subtended by a terse and ominous bass recitative which both intones and transmogrifies the opening C minor chords. Jurowski contoured and sustained these huge paragraphs/contrasts with complete mastery proving that p or pp can sound as ominous and intense as the loudest fff passages. The music never sagged or dragged, as it so often does. All through this unique opening section Jurowski achieved a powerful sense of suspense and expectation. Then, the huge development section, still dominated by C minor and C sharp minor (with shades of A and Dminor), Shostakovich introduces a grotesque and brutal march-like figure (literally a brutalised version of the main C minor tonic) between trumpet and trombone in canon. Here he underlines the main Allegro non troppo marking of the movement. Unlike many conductors Jurowski adhered accurately to the composer’s tempo marking thereby maintaining the sinister impact of the passage and thus allowing with full coherence the cataclysmic climax, now inflected with C major, on full orchestra with a massive onslaught from the battery of percussion. This shattering climax subsides around a complex web of new variations on previous motif’s, then into a plaintive melody on a pp string tremolando from which develops a long and haunting cor anglais cadenza, now underscored by a varying and uneven pulse. This extended cadenza incorporates virtually all the previous themes in metamorphosed form; the actual tonality here is undecided between major and minor. No wonder it has often been claimed that Shostakovich is the composer of uncertainty. And this in a work usually seen in terms of affirmative negation! The LPO’s cor anglais phrased the cadenza almost faultlessly in terms of literal execution. But I missed that ethereal (haunting) quality one hears with Mravinsky and Rozhdestvensky. But this was more than compensated for by Jurowski’s compelling and idiomatic conducting.

 Shostakovich described the second movement Allegretto as a simple, rather ‘burlesque’, march movement alternating on a motto in D flat and C flat. Here Jurowski maintained the Allegretto throughout as the composer directs. Particular praise must go to the deft playing from the piccolo at the refrain towards the movements final.

 Similarly the third movement, toccata-ostinato, initially in E minor, marked Allegro non troppo was accurately delivered. Initially the strings, in their motoric rhythmic figurations, were not quite together, but this was only a temporary lapse. Jurowski fully projected the frequent ‘marcatissimo’ and ‘sforzando’ markings. In the martial trio with trumpet fanfares and implacable side drum rhythm. Jurowski injected a vivid sense of suspense, expectation, anticipating the build up to the devastating, ‘self destructive’ climax, hurling the movement into the unision of a subsiding Passacaglia theme, sounding here apocalyptic, with the miraculous contrast into the passacaglia in G minor to the C major which iniates the haunting theme of the finale.

 There has been all manner of rhetoric relating  this symphony to a particular  political programme: it is variously seen as ‘anti-Stalin’ or ‘anti-Hitler’. Although Shostakovich was certainly aware of the context in which he was composing the symphony, the same year (1943) that the German Wehrmacht’ had besieged his native Leningrad. And Hitler’s Sixth Army was attempting (unsuccessfully) to annihilate Stalingrad. All this cannot be minimised as affecting the mood of the work. But it can be argued that the symphony exceeds any particular context, or programme Perhaps it is better to see it as a commentary on human conflict and war, or rather the human suffering caused by war – as was suggested by Jurowski in his pre-concert talk.

 The unheroic, rather desolate coda, with a freely developed waltz rondo on bassoon (‘neither grave nor gay’) was allowed a flexibility which fully corresponded to Jurowski’s overall conception and tempo/dynamic choice. The C-D-C motto now in C sharp minor initiating one of the most poignant endings Shostakovich ever composed, giving way to tonal undecidability and silence. A silence Jurowski held for a good few minutes. Is clapping absolutely appropriate here?

 All through (and despite the few, mentioned, minor fluffs) the LPO was in superb form in all sections, but especially the woodwind and brass. As a fine orchestral trainer Jurowski, as chief conductor, is largely responsible for this continuing orchestral excellence. An unforgettable concert experience.


Geoff Diggines



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