Friday 13 August 2021

Late romanticism to the fore in Vladimir Jurowski, the London Philharmonic Orchestra & Steven Isserlis' exploration of Walton & Hindemith at the BBC Proms

Vladimir Jurowski (Photo Matthias Creutziger)
Vladimir Jurowski (Photo Matthias Creutziger)

Stravinsky, Walton, Bach arr Goldmann, Hindemith; Steven Isserlis, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 August 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The London Philharmonic Orchestra's retiring principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, says farewell with a typically imaginative and exploratory programme

Last night's BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall (12 August 2021) featured the largest assemblage of orchestral musicians that we had seen in a long time. Some 70 or so musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) took advantage of the hall's space to gather to bid farewell to Vladimir Jurowski as principal conductor in a concert exploring alternate symphonic pathways through the 20th century repertoire which he has so consistenly championed. The programme was traditionally structured with a concerto and a symphony, but the concerto was William Walton's Cello Concerto with cellist Steven Isserlis, a work which has not made anything like as many Proms appearances as Walton's other concertos, whilst the evening ended with Paul Hindemith's gloriously affirmative Mathis der Mahler Symphony, another work which seems unjustly neglected. Completing the programme was Stravinsky's ballet Jeux de Cartes and Friedrich Goldmann's arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach 14 Golberg Canons.

We began with Stravinsky's Jeu de Cartes, written in 1935 and 1936 for Georges Balanchine and American Ballet. The ballet is about a game of poker in three hands, the protagonists are the cards and the drama comes from the moves to defeat the evil Joker. A dramatic scheme which links to inspiration from the rise of Nazism and provides intriguing parallels to another ballet (very different) from the same period (both ballets debuted in 1937), Checkmate which Dame Ninette de Valois choreographed to music by Sir Arthur Bliss.

Whilst Jeu de Cartes is divided into three hands and individual numbers, in fact Stravinsky makes the music flow almost continuously. In many ways the work faces forwards and back, a narrative ballet with a semi-abstract plot, individual numbers yet the music is continuous, Stravinsky at the height of his neo-Classical style yet with copious references to the music of Tchaikovsky (and Rossini). It seems to be a work full of games. Textures were crisp and clockwork, vividly portrayed, yet there were fragments of more romantic elements too. Stravinsky seems to stand somewhat back from the drama, and Jurowski's performance emphasised this, exploring the mechanisms of Stravinsky's music and drawing fine playing out of the LPO. 

We jumped 20 years, to the mid-1950s, for the next work but the sound world was rather different. William Walton had written notable concertos for viola and for violin in the 1920s and 1930s, so the concerto for cellist Gregor Piatigorsky seemed an obvious continuation. But the Walton of the 1950s was no longer the enfant terrible of the 1920s and the combination of his notable wartime film work, a happy marriage and a move to Ischia served to bring an added lyricism to the music which did not sit well in Britain of the 1950s. Critical reactions to his opera Troilus and Cressida (1954), the Cello Concerto (1957) and the Second Symphony (1960) were distinctly mixed.

The Cello Concerto opens with a gorgeously scored opening movement which features a hauntingly beautiful melody over wonderful orchestra textures, yet the harmony has a fascinating major/minor uncertainty. As with the Stravinsky, we noticed Jurowski's eye for detail in the music. Neither conductor nor soloist luxuriated in the music, Isserlis played with a lovely fine-grained tone, not over spotlit but weaving his way through the orchestral tetures. There was passion, but never any over-rich tone or romantic luxuriance, this was haunting, questioning and often remarkably intimate. The scherzo was pure Walton of the 1930s, crisp orchestra detail, wit and edge, with a virtuoso solo part where the vivid scurrying is part of the music rather than a vehicle for display. And Isserlis gave us a lovely throw away ending, despite the technical dazzle.  The third movement is technically a theme and variations, but Walton creates a strikingly individual structure with two large-scale solo improvisations at the centre of the work. The theme was presented in a surprisingly intimate way, with neither Isserlis nor Jurowski inclined to hurry, allowing us to enjoy the colours in the orchestra. The first cello solo was vivid and fierce, followed by an orchestral Allegro whose colours, edge and rhythms took us back to the Walton of the 1930s, then a melancholy second cello solo where lyricism combined with complexity and Isserlis succeeded in making the Royal Albert Hall surprisingly intimate. The final section seemed to dissolve into pure film-music romance, yet there was one final dissolve as the music from the opening returned with the cellist almost mid-phrase and the whole evaporating in a magical ending. 

The work was perhaps not quite what is commissioner, Piatigorsky, wanted (he kept urging Walton to write a louder ending) and certainly did not fit in with Britain in the 1950s. It remains, puzzlingly, somewhat on the sidelines yet this performance showed what a magical and innovative work it really is.

When Bach published his Goldberg Variations in 1741; this a rare excursion into print and in the 20th century only 18 copies of this first edition were known to have survived. Then in 1975, a 19th copy was found, and it contained Bach's own annotations including a hitherto unknown sequence of 14 canons. In 1977 the German composer-conductor Friedrich Goldmann (1941-1949) orchestrated them for small orchestra, including harpsichord. And it was Goldmann's orchestration, receiving its UK premiere, that opened the second half. Goldmann started with just a pair of horns, and only gradually expanded the palate. Different canons received different orchestrations, with Goldmann seemingly enjoying the varied orchestral palate. The sound-world moved between Stravinsky and the neo-Baroque, this was Bach very much filtered through the 20th century. For all Jurowski's advocacy and the care with which he and the ensemble played the music, there seemed something fascinatingly 1970s about the piece.

We ended with Paul Hindemith's magnificent Symphony 'Mathis der Mahler'  written in 1933 and 1934 whilst Hindemith was at work on his opera Mathis der Mahler and the symphony recycles elements from that work into a symphonic triptych. Like Walton of the 1950s, Hindemith in the 1930s was moving away from his bad boy image of the 1920s. His music developed a stronger theoretical edge and counterpoint became something of a feature. In fact, listening to Goldmann's orchestration of Bach you could hear the links back to Hindemith's symphonic manner. Hindemith was a significant string player, founding the Amar String Quartet, premiering Walton's Viola Concerto in 1929 (after Lionel Tertis rejected it), and teaching himself the viola d'amore so he could write a sonata for the instrument.

The angel concert of the first movement started serene, but once Hindemith introduces the German folk-song Es sungen drei Engel the music took on a neo-Baroque feel and I was repeatedly struck by the way the music combined complex counterpoint with lyricism, yet it never quite became romantic. A sort of neo-Baroque expressionism. Some of the orchestral textures were dense indeed, with again Jurowski's ear for detail telling and at one point, we seemed to almost (but not quite) wander into an RVW symphony. For the second movement, based on the 'Entombment', Jurowski drew quite an underlying strength to this intimate music, with a superb flute solo and some finely warm orchestral playing. The final movement, based on 'The Temptation of St Anthony', began with strings and brass in a classic Hindemith sound world, the orchestral sound here was brilliant and Jurowski really ramped up the tension. The music had plenty of strenuous moments and devilish detail brilliantly rendered, yet Jurowski kept up the tension even when the music eased. Even at the most radiant moments, Hindemith's music remained busy with counterpoint and the movement concluded with a dazzlingly virtuosic fugue capped by affirmative brass. 

This was a supremely explorative concert with Jurowski and the orchestra demonstrating a superb ability to bring out the detail and the imagination in a pair of works which can, in the wrong hands, seem somewhat dated. And the companion pieces, not obvious by a long chalk, shed a fascinating light on the sound worlds of the different works. A thoughtful and brilliant programme.

After the concert, John Gilhooly as chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society presented Vladimir Jurowski with the RPS Gold Medal which, like the Royal Albert Hall, is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The award was initiated in 1870 (for the centenary of Beethoven's birth) and its first recipient in 1871 was the composer William Sterndale Bennett.

Vladimir Jurowski became the LPO's principal guest conductor in 2003, going on to become principal conductor in 2007. He is taking over as music director of Bavarian State Opera and now becomes the LPO's conductor emeritus as Edward Gardner takes over as principal conductor.

The concert is on BBC Sounds for 60 days.

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