United Kingdom Klein, Schulhoff, Martinů and Janáček: Borodin Quartet, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 7.11.2018. (AS)
Klein – Partita for strings (arr. Saudek for chamber orchestra from String Trio)
Schulhoff – Concerto for string quartet and wind ensemble
Martinů – Concerto for string quartet and orchestra
Janáček – Sinfonietta
Amidst current celebrations to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War this concert also celebrated 100 years, but here the centenary of the founding of an independent Czechoslovakia. The works of four Czech or Moravian composers were represented. Though the Czech Republic is a democracy once again, those 100 years have seen its peoples subjected to two harsh tyrannies – under the Nazis during the Second World War, and then for many years under Soviet Russian rule. Both Gideon Klein and Erwin Schulhoff were of Jewish ancestry and ultimately perished in the Second World War Holocaust, while Martinů fled occupied Europe to the USA in 1940, and was never to return to his native land. Unfortunately, Vladimir Jurowski’s enterprise in devising such an unusual and interesting programme resulted in an auditorium with many empty seats.
Gideon Klein (1919-45) left no orchestral works during his brief maturity, and so his compatriot composer Vojtěch Saudek (1951-2003) transcribed the late String Trio of 1944 for full string orchestra. The programme note told us the Saudek had been faithful to the original and the result as heard is an effective concert piece. A charming, fresh-sounding, inventive set of variations on an elegiac folk song, is flanked by a busy, lively, rhythmically athletic first movement, and an engagingly fast and furious, but friendly-sounding finale. Not only is the work interesting and effective, but it strikingly conveys optimism and high spirits, the composer triumphing over his negative environment in the Terezin concentration camp and the knowledge that his future was likely to be very limited. The LPO strings exuded both warmth and corporate virtuosity under Jurowski’s clear, enthusiastic direction.
The distinguished Borodin Quartet had played the next two works with Jurowski conducting in Moscow and Dresden, and this explained why the collaboration now seemed so assured. Those of us who have previously encountered the music of Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) may have done so through his jazz-inspired piano pieces (the composer himself recorded a number of them for Grammophon/Polydor), but here the influence seemed to be more the neo-classical style of Hindemith. A combination of single strings and brass poses obvious problems of balance, but the original skill of the composer in this direction, expertly realised by Jurowski, ensured clarity of textures: naturally Schulhoff doesn’t pit his quartet directly against a hefty set of brass instruments in full flow. The conductor also stood deferentially motionless when the quartet played passages on its own. In this work the fast-slow-fast three-movement formula is used, the slow movement possessing a somewhat dark nature: the first movement is quite brazenly pugnacious in its use of the brass, while the finale displays a more light-hearted mood, with hints of a jazz influence. The Quartet’s playing was skilful, though the players had little scope for self-expression, and Jurowki’s clear-cut direction was rewarded by precise, expert brass playing.
Martinů’s concerto has obvious similarities with that of Schulhoff. Here the quartet was partnered by a full, though not particularly large orchestra, and again the composer takes the greatest care not to get his solo string players overcome in ensemble. The opening movement is neo-classical in style, but here the orchestration is piquant and flecked with bright colour, rhythmically bouncy and strongly propulsive. Again, the Quartet is given some solo passages, but has little opportunity for expressive manoeuvres. The solo group provides a longish introduction to the middle movement, before a more passionate episode takes over, with swirling tutti strings evoking answering comments from brass and woodwind. There are intriguing hints at this point of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, a work that was in fact written seven years after the Martinů. The finale has a quite jolly, outgoing quality, although the writing becomes a bit dense before a hectic dash to the finish. Once again, Jurowski conducted with evident enthusiasm, and he secured playing of high quality.
Finally, the more familiar Sinfonietta, with its cohort of trumpets and tubas here positioned at the front of the empty orchestral stalls, where they towered over the main ensemble and made a superbly brilliant sound in the fanfares of the opening movement, accompanied by absolutely pin-point, hard stick strokes secured by Simon Carrington, the timpanist. Jurowski paced the second movement well, managing the changes of tempo adroitly and appropriately. But here there was a hint of over-control, and where the greatest of Czech conductors have brought a certain freedom of expression to this music Jurowski’s delivery was quite taut rhythmically. But the middle movement sounded as passionate as it should be, with the horn yelps at its climax making a strong impression; and the pert, perky Allegretto movement had plenty of style and panache. So to the finale, with trumpets and horns taking up their first movement material again with renewed vigour, building towards the work’s crowded, joyously triumphant climax. What a wonderful, original work this is, still sounding young after almost a century of existence.