Thursday 26 January 2017

Kancheli, Martinu and RVW: three contrasting 20th century figures from the London Philharmonic

Vladimir Jurowski - photo Roman Gontcharov
Vladimir Jurowski - photo Roman Gontcharov
Kancheli Mourned by the Wind, Martinu Memorial to Lidice, RVW Symphony No. 9; Isabelle van Keulen, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 25 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Three striking but contrasting 20th century works in a vibrantly engrossing programme

The London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) under its conductor Vladimir Jurowski presented a trio of striking, yet rarely performed 20th century at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 25 January 2017. They were joined by viola player Isabelle van Keulen for Giya Kancheli's Mourned by the Wind (Liturgy in memory of Givi Ordzhonikidze for orchestra and solo viola), and the followed this with Bohuslav Martinu's Memorial to Lidice and RVW's Symphony No. 9. The performance of the Kancheli was supported by donors to the LPO's Kancheli Appeal which raised in excess of £45,000 to support adventurous programming.

The concert came under the banner of the orchestra's year-long festival Belief and Beyond Belief, with the Kancheli and the Martinu both having some sort of spiritual/commemorative dimension; Kancheli's instrumental liturgy being written in memory of a close friend, the Martinu written to commemorate and mourn the killing of nearly 200 men at the village of Lidice by the Nazis. The RVW symphony is less easy to shoe-horn into this framework, but thankfully the LPO's programming allows them interesting digressions. The result was certainly an intriguing and striking exploration of 20th century orchestral music by three composers each of whom took idiomatic nationalism to a very striking conclusion with three very contrasting works.

Giya Kancheli's Mourned by the Wind (Liturgy in memory of Givi Ordzhonikidze for orchestra and solo viola) was written in 1985-1989, is a memorial to Kancheli's friend, the Georgian musicologist and critic Givi Ordzhonikidze. Written for very large orchestra and solo viola, it is a substantial work in four movements lasting around 45 minutes.

It opened with a very loud piano chord which was allowed to die right away before soloist Isabelle van Keulen started a rocking motion very quietly in two notes on the viola, slowly orchestra joined first the lower strings and then others. Though textures moved, there was a sense of stasis with harmony changing slowly and creating a mesmerising effect. Whilst the solo part did vary, and Isabelle van Keulen did have dramatic moments, her music was never far from the quiet rocking figure of the opening though even here Kancheli varied the rhythms in a gently subtle way.

The basic texture of the whole piece was this quiet stasis, invoking perhaps a sense of spirituality, which Kancheli periodically interrupted with outbursts from the full orchestra. These latter were very loud, meaning that dynamic range of the piece was remarkable, and Kancheli's ear for colour in the orchestration was very acute, with passages such as one for just viola, two violins and harpsichord. The whole was organised by a careful sense of logic, but one which seemed to escape definition on one listening, but silence and spare textures are clearly important to Kancheli. (Kancheli's music from this period can hardly be understood without considering how, writing under a Soviet regime he needed to disguise all artistic expression).

Isabelle van Keulen was masterly in her intense concentration in the solo role, and she was supported by the superb control of Vladimir Jurowski and his musicians who produced some ravishingly quiet moments, as well as stupendous loud ones. Thanks to the quality of performance, the work was remarkably absorbing. Kancheli (who lives in Belgium) was present in the hall to acknowledge applause after the performance.

The second half began with Martinu's Memorial to Lidice, a remarkable short work for large orchestra which attempts to commemorate the town of Lidice in the Czech Republic where the Nazis killed all 200 men and deported the women and children. Martinu used rich dark orchestral textures which repeatedly evaporated into fragments of the St Wenceslas Chorale. An intense, richly textured work, Martinu seemed to use different groups of the orchestra which repeatedly dissolved into each other, with the chorale never far away. A sober yet richly powerful work, there was something about the use of harmony, rhythm and melody which spoke of Czech music.

RVW's Symphony No 9 was completed in 1957 and the first performance took place in 1958, four months before the composer's death. Sir Adrian Boult recorded the symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, just after the composer's death. The symphony is abstract, and sometimes called enigmatic, though the composer toyed with the idea of a programme. What is notable is that, common with a lot of other late RVW, he was fascinated by unusual timbres so that the piece includes a role for solo flugel horn, as well as having saxophone section in the orchestra.

Clearly, the orchestra has the music in its blood and could probably play a creditable account on its own. What was fascinating about the performance was the results of the interaction between players who have a strong instinct for RVW's music and a conductor whose view of the music is more Euro-centric. Jurowski brought out the links to mid-20th century European symphonic movements (you immediately think of Shostakovich and late Sibelius). Whilst the familiar RVW was there, the links to the more pastoral, mystical side were played down and the results were angular and more present than in some performances. It was a gripping and engrossing performance, and showed how taking RVW as a European composer can illuminate his work.

The opening Moderato maestoso was quite fast and dark, with contrasts in timbres and tough, angular elements to the fore. Yet Jurowski did not drive things on, the textures melted magically and of course there were the lovely moments when the orchestra retreated and spot lit the saxophones (admirably played without overdoing the vibrato). T|he Andante sostenuto started with a mellow flugel-horn solo, yet there was a sardonic feel to the rhythmic material and quite a strong edge to the music, again with magical dissolves. With the big string passage, Jurowski gave the players their head, allowing them to show just how well they understand this music. The Scherzo was very malign indeed, with strong character and sly relish, and some very fine saxophone playing here too. The great feeling of character which Jurowski drew out of the music showed just how well and unified the players are under him. The finale had a lovely natural flow to it,with Jurowski really bringing out the details in the multiple layers of music, often the quietly austere tone of the work being warmed by the string tone. And the climaxes had a really vibrant sense of intense energy, whilst the coda flowed magically away.

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