Thursday, 9 February 2017

Jurowski : Kancheli and blazing Ralph Vaughan Williams

Vladimir Jurowski (photo : Thomas Kurek)
Vladimir Jurowski at his finest in last week's concert at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, part of their ongoing series Belief and Beyond Belief.  Jurowski is special to me because he's an extremely spiritual personality,  who thinks deeply about music as part of human experience. When Jurowski speaks, he's worth listening to;  he doesn't do small talk. A while back, he did a series in Russia about war and peace for audiences that didn't look like they spent much time in black tie. His choices were eclectic, even avant garde, but he described them in such a way that the audience held onto his every word. He communicated such sincerity that he drew respect even when the language barrier intervened. The South Bank is so full of hype these days that's it's annoying even to navigate the website. But there's nothing fake about Vladimir Jurowski.

In this concert, Jurowski and the LPO did an unconventional but thoughtful programme  Giya Kancheli Mourned by the Wind and  Bohuslav Martinů: Memorial to Lidice together with Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony no 9Fortunately it's now broadcast on BBC Radio 3 , since going to the South Bank is more pain than pleasure these days.  The other big plus is that we get to hear Jurowski talk about the music, more fluently than most presenters. Third bonus, as interval feature Herbert Howell's a capella chorale Take him, Earth, for cherishing.

Kancheli called Mourned by the Wind (1988) a "Liturgy" but it's not religious so much as an intense, personal outpouring of grief for a dead friend.  It begins with a single chord which resonates into silence. The viola enters, quietly at first, playing a figure that hovers back and forth between two poles. Isabelle van Keuelen held the line firmly, unswayed by the sudden cataclysmic outburst in the orchestra behind her.  Fierce staccato blasts, another cataclysm, wilder than the first, with thundering timpani, and another "death stroke" single chord.  But the viola isn't defeated.  Emerging from a rumbling, shimmering background it defines a melody that evolves into delicately plucked patterns: resplendent like starlight.  The "death strokes" return, wave after wave, but the viola holds its plaintive line, until it evaporates into silence.  

Martinů Memorial to Lidice (1943) commemorates Lidice in Bohemia, obliterated by the Nazis. Again the subject matter is death but on a more abstract musical level; the connections include contrasting poles. In Kancheli the tension swings between staccato orchestra and solo viola, In Martinů, the contrast is between brute force and the innocence of folk music. 

Thus a dramatic context was set for Vaughan Williams's Ninth Symphony from 1956-7.  Whatever the symphony may or  may not be about,  Jurowski gave it a savage power and majesty one doesn't often associate with British music. All to the good, for here, at the very end of his life, RVW is breaking new ground. He will not "go gentle into that good night".  He uses saxophones in sassy chorus, and a flugelhorn, extending the low resonance of the brasses, which include tuba, and contrabassoon. Dark colours of foreboding and passages which march with demonic violence. 

It's also a strikingly modern work, vividly experimental and unabashed, as Jurowski's approach made clear.  No wonder critics 60 years ago didn't know what to make of it.  As Edward Said said, "late style" can be liberating since a composer no longer needs to conform. Elliott Carter joked that in his own "late, late style", he didn't have to seek approval from anyone but himself.  Yet RVW is totally in control of his powers, highly disciplined, attention focused on essentials, nothing superficial. He uses the flugelhorn for a purpose, as if blasting away at the veneer of conventional "good taste". Life's too precious to fritter mindlessly away!  The tightness of the orchestration was reflected in the strength of the performance, the LPO surpassing themselves.  An RVW Ninth that was monumental in every way.  If the LPO doesn't release this commercially, it will enter the bootleg market as a milestone in RVW interpretation. 

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