United Kingdom Beethoven, Eötvös, Scriabin: Marco Blaauw (trumpet), Omar Ebrahim (speaker), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 8.2.2020. (CC)
Beethoven – Symphony No.1 in C Op.21
Eötvös – Snatches of a Conversation (2001)
Scriabin – Symphony No.2 in C minor Op.29
The opening concert of the LPO’s ‘2020 Vision’ series, this concert juxtaposed three pieces, each written 100 years apart. The result was magical, stimulating and contained scrupulous yet inspired music-making. The idea, in Beethoven 250 year, is to get a clear perspective on Beethoven from our vantage point, here in 2020.
It began with music by the Man of the Year, Ludwig van Beethoven: the First Symphony, in a lithe, slimline performance that sparkled and yet packed a punch well above its weight, accents finely honed throughout. Antiphonal violins, natural trumpets (but valved horns) spoke of gestures towards so-called ‘authenticity’, but the freshness was very much of the now. While the Adagio molto was conducted in eight, the Allegro con brio was massively bracing, exposition repeat intact. Again, Jurowski conducted the 3/8 Andante cantabile con moto in three, albeit a fast three, a beautiful oboe contribution (Ian Hardwick) elevating the proceedings. How lovely and pastoral was the Trio of the third movement; a true contrast to the furious finale, a presto surely (it is marked allegro molto e vivace). Most impressive in this last movement was Jurowski’s realisation of Beethoven’s dynamic terracing. A superb performance, and a perfect way to open the series.
Only 12 minutes long, Peter Eötvös’ Snatches of a Conversation is a wonderful example of that rare phenomenon: a truly entertaining piece of properly contemporary music. Narrator Omar Ibrahim seems to be making something of a speciality of this piece: he performed it also at a 2003 Prom – the work’s UK premiere – and a 2006 Queen Elizabeth Hall concert. Those interested to hear the piece might wish to try the YouTube performance conducted by the composer, with the Ensemble Intercontemporain and soloists Isabel Soccoja (giving a female aspect to the narrator) and trumpeter Jean-Jacques Gaudon. Here, it was the experienced Marco Blaauw who took the trumpet part – a part written for trumpet with two bells (a double-bell trumpet). The piece is a state-of-consciousness quasi-improvisation, with the composer inviting the listener to imagine they are in a coffee house and overhearing what’s around them. For the trumpet, the use of a double bell means they can alternate very quickly between open and muted sounds, for example. No missing the jazz implications here (sometimes all we needed was the Swingle Singers and the job’s a good ‘un). Jurowski placed the speaker at the back of the ensemble, perhaps reflecting the anonymity of the snatches of sense that floated through. Blaauw is a superb trumpeter, his accuracy and clarity of attack and tone invoking memories of Markus Stockhausen. A fabulous piece, and a reminder of Eötvös’ excellence as a composer, a stance that was confirmed in the Barbican’s one-day Total Immersion back in 2011 (review click here). Ebrahim’s delivery of the text seemed to be totally precise.
Post-interval, we heard Scriabin’s wonderful Second Symphony. There are five movements, which we experience as three because the first and second, and fourth and fifth are played attacca, leaving a central Andante as a pivot. One does sometimes appreciate that conjoining, as it does mean the audience cannot applaud in between (there was applause at every opportunity, including between the movements of the Beethoven). Scriabin’s Second is a piece that has been moved to record collectors’ consciousnesses fairly recently thanks to an excellent Oslo Philharmonic performance on LAWO Classics (review click here). It is a piece that can easily descend into bombast, but that, certainly, is not Jurowski’s way. His sheer control over the orchestra was remarkable, from the dark clouds of the opening, to the woodwind with their shades of Wagner, to outbursts that enabled us to hear the complex scoring. Jurowski’s strength is to allow the music to build in waves, and the times those waves cut off suddenly were masterstrokes of control.
The central Andante is a dream, and contained sweet violin solos from leader Pieter Schoeman. Again, the journey to the summit was led by capable hands; a word, too, for the most beautiful clarinet solo from Benjamin Mellefont. Jurowski’s tight grasp enabled the music to stay away from the precipice of schmaltz (Valery Gergiev, in his LSO Live account, goes full-sugar); it also meant the movement’s expansive climax positively glowed.
The fourth movement is marked ‘tempestuoso,’ and the aching, groaning opening gestures led to some of the stormiest musical seas imaginable; Jurowski seemed to imply these ‘seas’ were Scriabin’s own internal struggles. Trumpet – brass in toto, in fact – contributions were staggering in their bright power and accuracy (I suspect there was not one split note all night, in fact). The joyous fifth movement (Maestoso) found the brass blazing again alongside superb, gritty string articulation. The final peroration, which in lesser hands can sound a little trite, felt truly impressive, and, most importantly, convincing.
The way Jurowski can coax his players into moving from Romantic generosity to subtle flickerings in a heartbeat is a thing of wonder. Inspiring and magnificent, this is what concert going should be all about.