United Kingdom Stravinsky and Berio: Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), Maria Ostroukhova (mezzo-soprano), Sam Furness (tenor), Joel Williams (tenor), Theodore Platt (baritone), Joshua Bloom (bass), The Swingles, London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 8.12.2018. (AS)
Stravinsky – Variations (Aldous Huxley in Memoriam); Threni; Tango
Berio – Sinfonia for Eight Solo Voices and Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski is an ideal conductor of Stravinsky’s last compositions. Not only does he always obtain clear, precise orchestral playing – the LPO was outstanding in this respect – and singing, but he makes the music communicate strongly to the listener. It comes across with meaningful personality, and not as a complex construction of diverse sounds. Last January the late Oliver Knussen conducted the Variations at a Royal Academy of Music concert. Even allowing for the valiant but less than perfect playing of the student orchestra, the work made a rather similar impression to that of the pioneering Robert Craft recording: it seemed an interesting, enormously clever composition which was somehow typical of its creator despite the use of the serial technique that Stravinsky developed late in his career.
In Jurowski’s hands the Variations assumed greater stature. In the first place the conductor introduced short pauses between each variation, which made the structure of the piece clearer. Secondly, he gave the music more time to expand, so that it didn’t sound short of breath. Each variation was allowed to develop its own personality and even its individual quality of emotional expression, something that Stravinsky no doubt tried but failed to suppress – hence the dessicated quality of the Craft recording, supervised by the composer.
Threni has pungently expressive texts, its five sections of text from the Book of Lamentations portraying successively the Lamentations of Jeremiah, complaint against the human condition, but then hope, the possibility of future compensation and renewed faith. There are no less than six soloists involved, but none seizes the limelight for more than a brief period, and their parts might be described as ungrateful. Nevertheless, the deep rich bass voice of Joshua Bloom made a distinct impression. The chorus both sings and speaks in ensemble: the London Philharmonic Choir’s Artistic Director Neville Creed was rightly applauded whole-heartedly at the end of the performance for his work in instilling such difficult music into the minds and voices of his highly talented but amateur singers.
Presiding over all was the commanding figure of Vladimir Jurowski, who unerringly steered his forces through the 35-minute work and conveyed the highly emotional quality of the Biblical verses to great effect. Threni is a work that gains so much from being seen and heard in live performance rather than in a recording, and it was indeed a rich experience.
After the interval a very large LPO gathered on the platform before the performance of Stravinsky’s Tango and the eight members of The Swingles took their places behind the first desks of the string sections. We knew the Tango in its version for piano or chamber orchestra, but what was this? Jurowski didn’t appear, but suddenly the The Swingles burst into song in a version of the piece for solo voices with a little bit of help from the electronic effects that had been installed mainly for Berio’s Sinfonia. Skilfully as the singers performed the eccentric rhythms of the piece, it would have been preferable to have heard the more astringent sounds of the cleverly scored instrumental version.
Enter Jurowski, and the orchestra took up its instruments to play Berio’s Sinfonia in concert with The Swingles and the eices with a little bit of help from the electronic effects that had been installed mainly for Berio’s Sinfonia. Skilfully as the singers performed the eccentric rhythms of the piece, it would have been prelectronic equipment under an unnamed manipulator of sounds (though it may have been Ian Tindale, listed as player of the electric organ). This work, now 50 years old, had also received a celebratory performance at this year’s Proms by completely different forces under Semyon Bychkov. Perhaps the Royal Albert Hall’s huge spaces had accommodated the sounds of the work’s complex instrumental, vocal and electronic forces more easily, since the Royal Festival Hall acoustic seemed to impose a certain amount of congestion at some points, but Jurowski’s performance left nothing to be desired. Of the five movements the third, a ghost-like re-creation of the third movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, interspersed with fragmentary quotations for all manner of other composers’ works is the longest, the most accessible and maybe the most effective. But all the sections of the work continue to stimulate and intrigue the listener through their diversity and quality of imagination.
At the end of the concert Jurowski gave a characteristically modest little speech in which he thanked everybody involved (including the audiences) in the year-long series ‘Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey’, now brought to an end. And to send us home with a tune in our minds, he and the orchestra gave us a bonus – Stravinsky’s witty Circus Polka, with its Schubert Marche militaire quotation at the end.