United Kingdom Beethoven and Stravinsky: Theater Trikster, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 6.10.2018. (AS)
Beethoven – Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op.43
Stravinsky – Orpheus
Here was another example of Vladimir Jurowski’s imaginative programme planning, and it fitted nicely into the LPO’s ongoing concert series entitled ‘Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey’. Both scores were originally composed for ballet productions, the scenarios of each being based on Greek mythological legends.
The story of Prometheus’s fall from grace was embroidered somewhat by the Italian ballet-master Salvatore Vigano for the original 1801 production. The ballet music is Beethoven’s longest work without voices and comprises an overture and 16 numbers, all of them fairly short. The overture is of course well-known, as is the main theme of the finale, since it was later used by the composer in the finale of his Eroica Symphony and as the theme of his Variations and Fugue for Piano, Op.35 (later nicknamed the ‘Eroica’ Variations).
The ballet music is expertly written, charming, elegant and occasionally mildly dramatic, but would scarcely hold its own as a concert work lasting over an hour. And so visual action to tell the story of was helpfully provided by members of Theater Trikster. They acted and danced on a portion of the stage in front of the orchestra and in the unoccupied seating area behind it; they provided shadow images projected onto a screen, also behind the orchestra, and they manipulated live-size puppets depicting the characters and their roles in the ballet’s story. This visual action certainly enhanced the experience as a whole, but occasionally it was a little obscure. There was no lighting in the hall, so audience members could not consult the synopsis printed in the concert programme for further guidance.
Musically the performance was as good as could be. As is his wont in Beethoven, Jurowski kept his forces on a fairly tight leash, but it was entirely appropriate here that the succession of short pieces should be kept well on the move. The playing of the 50-odd members of the LPO was beautifully poised and utterly perfect.
Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus, first produced by George Balanchine for the Ballet Society of New York in 1948, is also scored for a moderate-sized orchestra. It represents the composer in his most severely neo-classical vein but has many passages of great charm and refined beauty. Most of the music is quite restrained, except for a pas d’action that depicts the action of the frenzied Bacchantes as they attack Orpheus and tear him to pieces. The vehemence of this brief episode, as violent as anything Stravinsky wrote, even in Le sacre du printemps, comes as a shock after the gently undulating music that precedes it. After this outburst, the return of the quietly beautiful music and the harp patterns with which the score began make a brilliantly effective and contrasting end to the work.
Jurowski showed his usual skill and insight into Stravinsky’s neo-classical style. The playing, though good, sounded as if it could have done with just a bit more rehearsal time: it must be a very tricky piece to perform. And here the Theater Trikster’s visual presentation seemed less necessary, less relevant and more obscure. An episode in which two bright lights were shone into the faces of audience members was quite distracting. Yes, it may be a ballet score, but like all Stravinsky’s music for this art form it stands up perfectly well by itself in concert performance.