United Kingdom Poleva, Berg, R. Strauss: Vilde Frang (violin), Bavarian State Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 18.9.2023.(CC)
Victoria Poleva – Symphony No.3, White Interment (UK premiere)
Berg – Violin Concerto
R. Strauss – Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64
In the first of two programmes in its London leg of its 500th (!) anniversary, the Bavarian State Orchestra (Bayerisches Staatsorchester) offered a Ukrainian UK premiere and the coupling of two twentieth-century masterpieces – the Berg Violin Concerto and Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie. Only three stops remain at the time of writing: Paris (Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, September 21), Linz (Brucknerfest, September 22, – although bizarrely it was Lucerne and Merano that received Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony: Linz gets Mahler 4) and finally, on Saturday, the Konzerthaus in Vienna.
The concert began with Victoria Poleva’s Symphony No.3, which was originally written in 2002 for oboe and strings and known just as White Interment; in its full orchestral garb it becomes her Third Symphony. The ‘whiteness’ is that of snow, and the rhythms are based on the words ‘teper’ vsegda snega’ – ‘snow, always snow’. The programme notes tell us that it invokes the feeling of ‘being trapped in an icy prison. succumbing to sleep as the surrounding space implodes’. Compositionally, Poleva uses techniques such as ‘circulatio’ (circle), catabosis (descent) and anabosis (ascent), plus ‘aposiopesis’ (concealment – a general pause that is intended to depict death and eternity). Lots of ambition to the background ideas, then, but the actual result was perhaps a touch less impressive. Poleva certainly creates a blanched out timbral space, and the sound is certainly lovely, and on an initial level, touching. Moreover, Jurowski made the music breathe – one could hear extended, composed, inhalations and exhalations. Poleva could not have asked for a finer performance: everything was balanced to the nth degree, the trumpet cutting through with one of those descents.
Those enumerations of technique: circular, ascent, descent – do rather describe the very basics of musical expression, though, and after a while it rather felt that the piece was living on texture alone. The shadow of Valentyn Silvestrov, too, seems ever near.
Violinist Vilde Frang never fails to impress, whether with this orchestra in Shostakovich under Rafael Payaré (review here) or in Bartók under the present conductor, Jurowski (but with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra: review here). Here it was Berg’s powerful Violin Concerto, apiece that encompasses the bleakest darkness and the most radiant light. Frang brought a real delicacy to her reading of this piece – the blossoming of the chorale in winds towards the end felt like the parting of a curtain to another world. Frang takes a predominantly lyrical approach to this most lyrical of members of the Second Viennese School; and which orchestra is better qualified to create a velvety bed of sound at the opening than the BSO? The combination of their baseline warmth with Jurowski’s keen ear for detail and clear ability to impart discipline was an ideal mix, and Frang proved the ideal choice of soloist. There have been more overtly powerful performances, but few that whispered into our ears – and souls – like this one. How keenly Jurowski differentiated between Haupt- and Nebenstimmen, how charmingly both Jurowski and Frang made the music dance, highlighting the folkish quotations. Jurowski also took pains to remind us that there is a saxophone in the line-up, revealing the concerto’s proximity of the world of Berg’s second opera, Lulu. The more muscular second movement still carried plenty of heft, while the Hauptrhythmus (a rhythm treated as a theme, basically) was powerfully projected by both orchestra and unforgettably at one point, by Frang (its massively clear pizzicatos as part of the equation). Most of all, though, the performance worked because of the sense of profound peace at the close. Superb.
It was Richard Strauss’s huge Eine Alpensinfonie that took up the second half in a faultless performance. Jurowski knows this score inside out, and how it showed in the myriad details we heard. High strings were preternaturally together, brass magnificent, each and every one. Jurowski’s was no stroll up the mountain – this was a bracing ascent, but never a rushed one. There was certainly no missing the glittering waterfall, or the power of horns in the big theme. Complex textures were deconstructed in front of us with X-ray precision, and yet held their place perfectly within the whole. Just one tiny complaint – the ‘offstage’ horns were indeed behind the stage (behind one of the ‘windows’ – panels – at the back of the stage that open up) but there was little sense of distance.
In the grand scheme of things, that is a minor caveat for a performance that was thrusting, heroic and wholly impressive. It was as if the might of the mountain was preserved in sound. Performances of the Alpine Symphony do come in concertgoers’ paths occasionally (and how the piece suited the Royal Albert Hall when Semyon Bychkov brought it there with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as part of the 2016 BBC Proms: review here). But personally, I find it impossible to imagine any that will eclipse the Bavarians after this evening.
The reference to that earlier Proms performance is perhaps germane as that programme included Wagner (the Wesendonck-Lieder). So did this one, but in encore format – an exquisitely crafted Die Meistersinger Act III Prelude. Perfect for this orchestra in terms of soundworld, and perfect in its profoundly contented stillness.