Thursday 28 September 2017

Britten, Silvestrov & Janacek: Jan Vogler, Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO

Vladmir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall
Vladmir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall
Britten, Silvestrov, Janacek; Jan Vogler, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 28 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Britten's cello symphony getting a rare outing which paired two 1960s rarities with Janacek's dramatic orchestral rhapsody

Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra continued their exploration of Belief and Beyond Belief with a concert at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 27 September 2017 which paired two very different works from the 1960s, Britten Symphony for Cello, Op.68 which was written for Mstislav Rostropovich and here played by cellist Jan Vogler, and Symphony No 3 'Eschatophony' by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov whose 80th birthday comes up on 30 September 2017. The programme was rounded off by Janceck's symphonic poem Taras Bulba.

Britten's Cello Symphony had its origins in an idea that Britten would write a concerto for Rostropovich. The work took some time to develop, and by the time it was complete in 1963 the role of the cello was less dominant and the role of the orchestra more equal, so Britten considered calling it a sinfonia concertante, but settled on Symphony for Cello. The work was premiered in 1964 in the USSR with Britten conducting the Moscow Philharmonic and Rostropovich as soloist. It is a big work, in four movements, and was Britten's first classical sonata form orchestral work for 20 years, and his only mature purely symphonic piece. It is a dark and complex work, not immediately ingratiating and the solo part is taxing yet with few elements of major display. The balance between soloist and orchestra is tricky, and there were moments in Wednesday's performance when you could see Jan Vogler beavering away yet the dominant musical ideas were in the orchestra.

I have to confess that it is a work that I admire, yet find difficult to love.
It opened with dramatic gestures from Jan Vogler, in dialogue with the tuba, and throughout the piece Britten seems to love the contrast between differing timbres and different ranges. The piece uses a large orchestra, yet we rarely heard a big orchestral tutti. For much of the first movement, the soloist is given fierce gestures, and there was a questioning, rhetorical strength to Jan Vogler's performance. He and Jurowski brought out the complex emotional world of the piece, with its underlying sense of uneasiness. The Presto second movement is a strange, scurrying toccata with interruptions. Jurowski and the orchestra made this movement mysterious, and though there were lyrical moments overall there was a sense of being permanently unnerved. The cello returned to the fore in the third movement, which had a stately neo-baroque feel with big gestures again from Jan Voglers cello, yet we moved to translucent orchestral textures and a high singing cello which led to a huge cadenza. This was not showy, but serious and strenuous, bringing out the cello's dark thoughts. Finally the Passacaglia, with the soloist introducing the strenuous passcaglia theme, and again I was struck by Britten's choice of remarkable instrumental combinations. The style here was very much Britten's glittering orchestral writing, and it built to a terrific end. Throughout Jan Vogler gave a committed and passionate performance of what is an intense and very serious work.

After the interval we had Valentin Silvestrov's Symphony No. 3 'Eschatophony' which was written in 1966. This dates from Silvestrov's 'lyrical dodecaphony' period which stopped in 1969, and following a year's gap he returned to composition with his more recent, contemplative and softer style. The symphony was receiving its UK premiere, and beforehand Vladimir Jurowski gave us a lucid and engaging introduction to the piece and its remarkable history (which includes the score being smuggled out of the USSR by Pierre Boulez). The title Eschatophony is related to Eschatology and refers to the sound of the end of times, as Silvestrov pushes dodecaphony to its limits and takes it beyond, using aleatoric passages.

Though in three movements, the work played without a break and there was a sense of continuous argument. Silvestrov's orchestration moved between glittering, fractured sounds which were based on highly structured 12 tone writing, and aleatoric passages where Jurowski's control was via gesture rather than baton. But even, in these aleatoric passages, Silvestrov's control of the texture and timbre was strong, and we passed through a remarkable series of highly characterised and highly coloured interactions. Like Britten, the work uses a large orchestra but was rarely a large sound.

Despite Silvestrov's Soviet background (he was born and trained in the Ukraine), the dominant sound world of the work seemed French, with its pointilism, refined sense of orchestration, and remarkable clarity and fluidity to the writing, not to mention the bird-calls in the wind. Each gesture seemed spare and precisely measured, yet the whole was very seductive. Overall there was a strong feeling of narrative underlying the work, as if it was meditating on a major event which had just happened.

For the final work in the programme we jumped back to 1918 for Janacek's orchestral rhapsody, Taras Bulba which is based on a Gogol novella. Whilst it can be useful to know the narrative of the work, Janacek achieves his ends via a series of wonderful sonic combinations. As with most mature Janacek the music is restless and he intercuts drama, lyricism and rhythmically vivid passages. Jurowski and the LPO showed superb control here, we got some stunning solo moments and each fragment of the collage was given in a highly characterised way, the emotional tenor of the work changing on a pin. But it wasn't just a performance of fine moments, Jurowski built things into a narrative, and drew us along towards the radiant climax.

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1 comment:

  1. A thoughtful review,albeit too kind towards the Britten. It would surely never get performed it it were by an unknown.


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