Thursday, 7 September 2017

Jurowski's Pillars : Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten Prom

Stravinsky and Shostakovich with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This Prom was typical of Jurowski's genius for intelligent, musically astute programming : Stravinsky's Funeral Song at one end, and Shostakovich Symphony no 11, two pillars,  with Britten's Russian Funeral as supporting buttress, with Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no 1 in D between them. When even Vladimir Putin worries about planetary catastrophe we should need to think how and why we got into a world where some people admire nutcases with nukes.

Stravinsky's Funeral Song was revealed in December last year in St Petersburg, where it had lain undiscovered for over 100 years.  For more background and its significance, please read my article Lost No More : Stravinsky Funeral Song.  Gergiev conducted that performance in a superlative programme connecting Stravinsky with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose funeral it marked. These connections are important, because the piece on its own is so short that its impact won't be appreciated out of context.  Gergiev linked it to Rimsky-Korsakov The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and to Stravinsky's The Firebird, a wonderfully unified concept, which Jurowski is doing too at the Royal Festival Hall in February 2018, in a slightly different programme. Mark your calendars.   Combining Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov is musically litterate and satisfying, but for this performance, Jurowski had to fulfil the rigid Proms diktats about dates and nationalism.

Before the Shostakovich symphony, though, Jurowski programmed Benjamin Britten's Russian Funeral (1936), which sets the hymn "You fell as Heroes" commemorating the massacres of the protesters of 1905, which Shostakovich was to incorporate into his Eleventh Symphony in 1957. Earlier this Proms season, we heard Britten's Ballad of Heroes, which has long been misunderstood because listeners can't get past the idea that being anti-war doesn't preclude protest in other forms. The ballad was written after the Spanish Civil War - it's not a call to battle, but a mark of respect for those killed and a protest against oppression. Please read my piece on it HERE.   Hearing Britten before Shostakovich in this context emphasizes the idea of universal struggle against oppression, wherever it might happen, or when. 

 Stravinsky's Funeral Song is about one man and highly personal, while Shostakovich's Symphony no 11 marks the death of multitudes. In 1905, people were massacred on the streets of St Petersburg. Twelve years later, the Tsar was overthrown for good.  Thus the scale of the piece, which not only marks the deaths of 1905, but also the end of Old Russia and the beginning of the New.  Thus the mute stillness of the First Movement "In the Square of the Winter Palace" with its ominous rumblings, and trumpet calls, which gave way to the the more abstract "soaring" theme, rising above the frozen ground, so to speak, as tension gradually rose with percussion defining a  staccato growl.  . Perhaps we can imagine the walls of the palace looming in the solid rising figures but these could also symbolize impenetrable forces of repression.Against these, the winds of change  blow when the strings fly into action, screaming in swirling, wayward lines.   Jurowski's sense of form keeps the scene in sharp definition.

Jurowski conducted with military precision,  contrasting the violence of the attack and the chaos it sliced through.  Thus the eerie silence from which the Funeral Elegy emerged : people are lying dead, but their voices will be heard above.  If anything, Jurowski's control was even more impressive here, allowing the strings and winds to wail, without compromising into insincere sentiment.  Utterly justifying  the connection between this symphony and Stravinsky's Funeral Song.  A magnificent finale, where the angular repetitions march forwards with ferocity.  Though Jurowski, by  nature, is a gentle person, he can be intensely passionate when he needs to be, as truly spiritual people often are.  Where once the soldiers marched on the people, the people now march forth in triumph.  Fanfares can be banal, but Jurowski's clear minded intelligence doesn't degenerate.  The heart of this finale isn't the noise, but the quiet cor anglais and bass clarinet themes. Eventually the Elegy returned, the tocsin bells tolling  clearly above the tumult.  the music breaks off suddenly - the struggle isn't over.  La lutte continua ! everywhere and at all times. Including the present.  

Between the two pillars and supporting buttress of Jurowski's programme, Stravinsky's arrangement of Song of the Volga Boatmen and Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No 1 in D with  Alina Ibragimova, ratherb diluting the overall impact, but that's the Proms for you.

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