United Kingdom Knussen, Sibelius, Scriabin. Leonidas Kavakos (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 3.10.2015 (RB)
Knussen – Scriabin Settings
Sibelius – Violin Concerto in D Minor Op 47
Scriabin – Symphony No. 3 in C minor Op 43 (‘The Divine Poem’)
This concert included works written in the first decade of the 20th Century by two of this year’s anniversary composers, Scriabin and Sibelius. It was an imaginative and interesting programme and a welcome change to listening to 18th and 19th Century favourites which, while they are always a pleasure to listen to, have been featuring rather too regularly in Festival Hall programmes.
The concert opened with Knussen’s settings of five short piano pieces by Scriabin which the latter wrote when he was under the spell of Wagner and experimenting with chromatic harmony. Knussen made his arrangement in the spring of 1978 for the Apollo Chamber Orchestra, an elite group of amateur players. The work is scored for woodwind, horns, celesta and strings and each of the pieces comprises no more than one or two pages in Scriabin’s original piano editions. I was impressed with the way in which Jurowski was able to link together these short fragments to create so convincingly Scriabin’s decadent and hedonistic sound world. He and the LPO captured the sensuous sense of yearning in Désir while there was sumptuous caressing of the phrases in Nuances. There was a fragrant perfumed delicacy in Feuillet d’Album while Énigme had a sense of capricious disdain and inscrutability. The pieces were permeated with the corrupting sense of the composer’s rather kinky sexuality.
When Jurowski returned to the stage with Kavakos for the Sibelius Violin Concerto, he had to make a hasty exit as the score had not been placed on the conductor’s podium – he returned brandishing the score to applause from the audience. The violin was Sibelius’ own instrument so he had a detailed knowledge of the technical possibilities of the instrument and this was his only work in concerto form. Leonidas Kavakos rose to prominence performing the Sibelius Concerto and he is one of the world’s foremost exponents of the work. Kavakos must have played this concerto countless times but there was nothing stale about this performance and he seemed alive to every phrase and nuance of the score. In the opening movement he gave us some highly expressive and vibrant playing and the sound was projected in a very clean way and with perfect intonation. Jurowski and the LPO provided wonderful depth and dark Arctic colours in the tutti sections and the seemed to complement the soloist with the right blend of sound. The cadenza was a technical tour de force with Kavakos presenting perfectly sculpted contours and rich sonorities together with the requisite elements of gypsy fire.
The LPO’s woodwind introduced the slow movement with wistful elegance before Kavakos entered with his heartfelt song – there was a rawness and directness in the playing, which was very compelling, and an ability to reveal the emotional kernel of this work. Tovey famously described the finale of this concerto as a polonaise for polar bears and the LPO’s lower stings introduced the movement in buoyant and upbeat fashion. Kavakos offered some electrifying double stopping and passage work, seeming to relish each of the technical challenges placed before him. He was at one with his orchestra partners and at various points he faced the strings and joined in the tutti sections. This was a really unbridled piece of playing that was deservedly greeted with rapturous applause from the audience.
Scriabin’s Third Symphony (‘The Divine Poem’) was written in the early years of the 20th Century when the composer was increasingly influenced by Nietzsche. It is scored for large orchestra and it follows a programme which sees the human spirit struggling to cast off its old religious affinities, finding refuge in sensuality and nature before achieving joyous liberation. The three linked movements are entitled Luttes (Struggles), Voluptés (Sensual pleasures) and Jeu divin (Divine play). Jurowski clearly had a formidable intellectual grip on this complex work and he exercised iron control throughout this performance.
In the opening movement I was impressed with the way in which he was able to structure the material so clearly and cogently with its use of recurring motifs within a sonata form framework. The LPO presented a rich array of orchestral colours and textures with portentous brass brilliantly conveying the fateful presence of the divine while the strings and woodwind suggested the angst and striving of man struggling with the old religious certainties. Jurowski navigated the way to each of the movement’s climaxes brilliantly and coaxed engulfing waves of sound from the LPO. The spirit of Wagner seems to inhabit the middle movement with its chromatic harmonies, burning sensuality, rustling forest murmurs and bird calls. There was a wonderful weight and breadth of sound from the strings in the opening section and expressive use of chromatic dissonance. The LPO’s woodwind were superb in the entrancing bird calls which seemed to reach an ecstatic pitch and the leader, Pieter Schoeman, contributed radiant violin solos. The trumpet calls which opened the final movement were light and vibrant and injected an infectious rhythmic momentum which was nicely picked up by the strings. Jurowski controlled the pulse of the movement well and succeeded in knitting together Scriabin’s recurring motifs before the music reach its resplendent conclusion.
This was an outstanding concert from start to finish.