Sunday 11 November 2018

‘The Eternal Flame’: LPO/Jurowski - Debussy, Magnus Lindberg, Stravinsky, and Janáček, 10 November 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Debussy: Berceuse héroïque
Magnus Lindberg: Triumf att finnas till… (world premiere)
Stravinsky: Requiem Canticles
Janáček: The Eternal Gospel

Andrea Danková (soprano)
Angharad Lyddon (mezzo-soprano)
Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor)
Maxim Mikhailov (bass)

London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Neville Creed)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

If an armistice remembrance concert is to be held – and surely it is not unreasonable to do so, one hundred years on from 1918 – let it be programmed like this. Yes, official remembrance has, in the very worst sense, been politicised way beyond endurance for most of us in the United Kingdom. What once was more, if never entirely, a remembrance of lives lost, of the evil of war, has, especially since New Labour’s murderous forays into Afghanistan and Iraq, become a totalitarian exhortation to militaristic nationalism. The annual accusatory ordeal of poppy fascism, seemingly receding further and further back in October with every year, should have been abandoned long ago. This, however, had none of that; there was, mercifully, nothing nationalistic to what we heard here. Moreover, if most of the musicians on stage, both in the orchestra and chorus, wore poppies, then it was heartening to see a good few, Vladimir Jurowski included, wearing white.

Debussy’s Berceuse héroïque, his ‘heroic lullaby’, as originally conceived, ‘to pay homage to H.M. King Albert I of Belgium and his soldiers’, said much of what needed to be said. The dark, opening spareness of this London Philharmonic performance sounded as if Debussy, as if we, were remembering the malevolence, the violence, internal and external, of Allemonde, the doomed, fractured society of Pelléas et Mélisande. Maybe of Allemande too: a country about which our ‘musicien français’ showed a distinct lack of wartime understanding. Perhaps Busoni’s earlier Berceuse élégiaque would have proved more universal; perhaps that is partly the point. All of us fall short in our particularities, our proclivities, our prejudices; all of us can do better. The stifling seduction – nationalism does that too – of the soundworld was poignantly judged in a typically controlled performance from Jurowski that yet lacked nothing in atmosphere or drama.

I remain, alas, at a loss to understand what has happened to Magnus Lindberg. Is the composer of Triumf att finnas till… (‘Triumph to exist…’), premiered here, and the Second Violin Concerto, premiered three years ago, really the composer of Kraft? Lindberg’s new choral work sets, in essentially through-composed fashion, seven poems by Edith Södergran. I was delighted to encounter her poetry for the first time earlier this year in Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles. Lindberg, quoted briefly in the programme, speaks admiringly and eloquently of Södergran’s verse and ‘its meditation on the transience of life … [a] defiantly positive affirmation of the joy of existence, the outpouring of one who refuses to submit to the hopelessness all around her.’ For him ‘it says something deeply essential about the tragedy of millions of young men who gave their lives in that useless slaughter.’ I wish I could have thought the same of his setting, which seemed on a first hearing to do little more than, well, set the verse, in a musical language that would have seemed unchallenging at the time of Södergran’s writing. At a pinch, the opening bars might have grown out of Debussy: I noticed in particular the writing for harp. The music, however, quickly grew into something more conventionally ‘late Romantic’. Some of its lush chordal harmonies might have been taken from Szymanowski, albeit without the complexity of texture. The word setting is likewise conventional to a tee, ‘Gloria! Seger!’ sounding just as one might expect. It was probably fun to sing, fun to play even: all quite pleasant. Is that enough? The London Philharmonic Choir, LPO, and Jurowski certainly gave a committed, commanding performance.

Another composer long accused of stylistic reversion was Stravinsky. Now, even in most of his neo-Classical works, we tend to hear what unites them with music from elsewhere in his career. Stravinsky always sounds above all like Stravinsky. Perhaps the same will prove true of Lindberg. At any rate, the late serial Stravinsky remains a rare treat, as rare in every sense as the music of Webern, to which it owes so much and from which it nevertheless remains quite distinct. Requiem Canticles I have longed for some time to hear ‘live’; it was unquestionably worth the wait. A smaller orchestra and chorus were joined by mezzo Angharad Lyddon and bass Maxim Mikhailov, all on fine form – even if, very occasionally, an orchestral line sounded on the verge of failing (nothing remotely on the scale of Robert Craft’s feeble performance in the ‘Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky’ set, though).

Rhythm and harmony revealed as great an affinity with the allegedly ‘different’ Stravinsky of The Rake’s Progress of a decade-and-a-half earlier as with other, more expected Stravinskys. The composer’s cellular processes were laid bare, not drily, but with an urgency announced from the off, as the purely orchestral ‘Prelude’ set string serial hounds of hell to their work. How individual the composer’s writing for strings always proves to be; how genuinely different his way of hearing these instruments seems to have been. If the ‘Exaudi’ seemed initially to have stolen a harp from Agon or Movements, the chorus reminded us this was the composer of the austere – until one truly listens – 1940s Mass. Ritual in Stravinsky is sometimes all, but it is ritual imbued with the keenest sense of drama. ‘Tradition’ was reinvented time and time again, in the ‘Dies irae’ – those trombones and timpani – in the ‘Tuba mirum’ – trumpets, trombone, bass, followed by a pair of ineffably Stravinskian bassoons – and beyond. Every interval, just as in Webern, counted. If the ‘Interlude’ offered fearful symmetries both in itself and in the work as a whole, a magic square write large, the ensuing ‘Rex tremendae’ reminded us that this work is, amongst many other things, a musical reliquary, every note a jewel, every silence its setting. Lyddon’s coloratura in the ‘Lacrimosa’ seemed to cast one ear back to Anne Trulove from the Rake, the purgatorial choral chatter of the ‘Libera me’ as startling, as incomparable as anything in the repertory. Its cold terror reminded us, had us remember. The bells of Stravinskian hereafter tolled, more to the point sealed the musical and theological structure, in the ‘Postlude’. This is music we should hear far more often.

Finally, joined by soprano Andrea Danková and tenor Vsevolod Grivnov, we heard Janáček’s cantata, Věčné evangelium (‘The Eternal Gospel’). Like Stravinsky, Janáček is almost always unmistakeable, certainly by this stage in his career. Obstinacy of motivic repetition and yet ultimate malleability spoke, even in the orchestral prelude, of Jenůfa and Katya Kabanova. There were times when Jurowski might, perhaps, have exerted less iron control or at least permitted a greater sense of the visionary. By the same token, however, there is much to be said for precision. If Grivnov (Joachim of Fiore) sometimes sounded a little parted, Danková, as the Angel, proved properly of another world. Grivnov’s closing solo in any case turned out to be a duly operatic reflection on what had passed, a mini scena of its own. Is there hope? Was Joachim’s kingdom of love dawning? Can it yet? Who knows? If here the eternal flame did not always quite blaze, flames are like that: often they will flicker. Blaze it certainly did at the close.