A Russian Affair: Jurowski triumphs with the LPO

Saturday 29th September 2012, 19:30

Royal Festival Hall, London

Rodion Shchedrin Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (The Chimes)
Miaskovsky Silentium
Denisov Bells in the Fog
Rachmaninoff The Bells (Choral Symphony)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski,
Tatiana Monogarova, Soprano
Sergei Skorokhodov, Tenor
Vladimir Chernov, Baritone
London Philharmonic Choir
London Symphony Chorus

Whether they sound for birth, marriage, death or peace, bells have long been an integral part of Russian culture. It was this idea which connected the four pieces performed by Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra last night. With the partnership’s previous recordings of Russian works garnering critical acclaim, my hopes were high.

Although Rachmaninoff’s The Bells often resonates around concert halls, the other works on the programme were less familiar. The concert was a melange of influences, ranging from references to Russian folk song to newer Polish styles and placing them next to hints of Minimalism and Impressionism. All of the pieces demanded orchestral virtuosity: over the course of the 90 minutes, every player in the LPO was pushed to their limits. It was not just their technical security that made the concert so memorable, but the presence and intensity of the performers.

The mood of the concert was established from the first note of Rodion Shchedrin’s Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (The Chimes). The muted palette and eerie hush which was used to great effect throughout the evening introduced the one-movement Concerto. The quasi-minimalistic backdrop was interrupted by various eruptions, not least the superbly gutsy brass counterpoint. Jurowski’s metronomic precision handled the wide scope encompassed by the work with élan, balancing timbre and texture to great atmospheric effect.

This spectacular concert-opener was followed by the more withdrawn Miaskovsky. Based upon a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, Miaskovsky’s music is imbued with a cinematic quality and carries reminiscences of Rachmaninoff. The LPO’s colouristic variety proved crucial in illuminating the gloomy mood, ranging from the gravelly depths of the lower strings and bassoons to icy violin notes. For me, this piece failed to ignite to the same sky-high level as the Shchedrin. Even taking the music’s meditative character into account, the players seemed hesitant and appeared to be holding back. The moments where the orchestra fully connected with Jurowski’s sweeping gestures were truly brilliant, and it was s a shame that the entire piece was not on this level.

Denisov’s short work returned the LPO to their blistering best. This piece combined subtle dissonance with string shimmerings to magical, quasi-Debussian effect. Elusive snatches of ideas quickly dissolved, underpinned by hypnotic pulsating rhythms. Although there were subtle intonation issues, the textual balance of the instruments was top-notch.

The final work on the programme saw the LPO capture the kaleidoscopic colours of Rachmaninoff’s subtle orchestration. The first movement captured the joyous buoyancy well, the delicacy of articulation compensating for the slightly pedestrian pace. Even in the Lento romance, Jurowski allowed the music to blossom without straying into the realm of the over-sentimental. His slight rubato maintained the sense of overall line while still allowing sensitivity to the material. The highlight of the performance was undoubtedly the Presto third movement, where khorovod folk influences were injected with urgency in the full-blooded rendition. After the creamy tones of Sue Bohling (the LPO’s cor anglais), the nightmarish Allegro finale certainly packed a punch. Even though Jurowski’s tempo for the Elysian coda was slower than many other recordings, the sense of contemplation which this lent seemed appropriate.

The massed forces of the London Philharmonic Choir and the London Symphony Chorus responded well to the orchestra in their careful declamation of Poe’s text. Their diction in the Russian translation was impressive, their shaping in the third movement proving to great effect.

Sergei Skorokhodov and Vladimir Chernov were well suited to the tone of the solo parts in the first and fourth movements respectively, but the Italianate tone of Tatiana Monogarova (soloist in the second movement) blended less well with the LPO: her voice seemed to lack the depth of sound which Rachmaninoff’s writing invited.

The LPO certainly proved that its reputation for performances of Russian music is deserved. Combining technical finesse with passionate explosions, Jurowski’s interpretation definitely made a strong case for this music. I look forward to hearing more, and by the response in Royal Festival Hall, so did the rest of the audience.


Russian Resonances

As a counterpole to the richness of Brahms and Schubert (whose works I have been orchestrating), I have been revisiting the harshness of Stravinsky’s sound-world. The recordings in question are those conducted by the composer and in particular the 1962 interpretation of Zvezdoliki “The Star-Faced One”.

Stravinskian works are instantly recognisable through their inherent sparsity. Even though the music is undeniably complex, it has an inherent emptiness. The cantata is under five minutes in length, and yet demands repeated listening in order to take it in sufficiently. The text is Russian, but its sonic effect is equally as important. The words are ambiguous, as is typical of the symbolist movements. Symbolist works are based around a code which can only be fully understood by initiates. The puzzle to be solved here is based around the identity of the ‘Star-Faced One’ himself.

Stravinsky was a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church throughout his life, and viewed music as central to the expression of faith. Even though Zvezdoliki is markedly different from other models of cantatas (most notably in its brevity), it is this which lends it power. The piece is inadequately equipped to approach its subject matter, and its 4 minutes are thus a glimpse into the beyond from one who cannot fully comprehend it.

After the opening declamatory chords, the mystical aura is established by hushed and dissonant violin notes. Stravinsky establishes expectations, and then suddenly snatches the possibility away.  Woodwind figures urgently crescendo before dropping back into the abyss, and ostinato patterns fluctuate in and out of being. This fragmentary texture is pinned together by the solidity of the 6-part male chorus. The homophonic texture appears almost detached from the disconnected components of the accompaniment.

The work’s conclusion is insufficient to resolve the dissonances (harmonic and otherwise) which have accumulated throughout the work, and the last sound is a violin pedal fading into silence. Maybe this ending is appropriate, however: like the subject matter, such questions cannot be bounded by a musical work, let alone one of such concision. Perhaps in this way Stravinsky is highlighting the paradox of religious music: while he saw it as the most fitting way to praise God, it is hopelessly equipped to explore the mysteries of the beyond.

Triumph and tragedy: ‘The Conductor’ by Sarah Quigley

It is the winter of 1941. Dead bodies are strewn through the streets, and starvation is rife. Shells from the surrounding Nazi forces shatter the city while victims lie hopelessly in hospital beds. Those still alive stagger to collect their meagre rations, passing the frozen bodies which lie in doorways.

This is the grim setting of Sarah Quigley’s book ‘The Conductor’. Amidst this devastation, it is a triumph of the human spirit which Quigley paints. The narrative is underpinned by the creation and performance of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, which the composer dedicated to Leningrad. It is not Shostakovich himself who is the focal character of the book, but Karl Eliasberg. The mediocre conductor leads the equally second-rate Leningrad Radio Orchestra, but his chance to shine comes when the Party offers him and the orchestra the chance to perform the 7th Symphony in summer 1942.

Quigley divides the narrative voice between those in the circle of musicians who are central to the plot, including Shostakovich himself. I have always been skeptical of historically-based novels, and this was no exception. There is always a conflict between the need to resolve the narrative and an accurate representation of the truth. Even though Eliasberg and his orchestra did in fact give a triumphant performance of the Symphony (an act to defy the surrounding Nazis), I thought that the trajectory of the novel was compromised. The resolution of the other plot lines seemed to come at the expense of a balanced conclusion which took the atrocities of the siege into account. I felt that this was due to a disjunction between Quigley’s florid prose and the horrors lining the city’s streets. Such a tone comes with the territory of the novel genre: any more gravitas would probably alienate a portion of the readers.

Another problem for me was Quigley’s characterisation of the central figure. Even as a flawed protagonist, I found it hard to sympathise with Eliasberg. His needy inner monologue for much of the book appeared to suddenly disappear, allowing the emergence of an almost unrecognisable hero figure at the end. However, I did like the portrayal of Shostakovich. Even though Quigley avoids digging into his relationship with the Party, his representation as an imperfect figure was welcome: it would have been all too easy to lend him a status as a martyr. I was dismayed at his sudden disappearance from the narrative: it would have been interesting to have his view of the situation from outside Leningrad. Other characters certainly evoked more empathy, such as the wounded former ballerina Nina Bronnikova and the father and daughter (Nikolai and Sonya).

Despite my criticism, the tale that Quigley tells is a harrowing one and she describes the struggles of the city well. Particularly poignant were Eliasberg’s rehearsals on the 7th Symphony with his malnourished musicians, which capture the despair of the situation. The Symphony gradually comes to dominate the novel. Eliasberg drives his weak musicians to the limits of their endurance; those fighting on the front line take up their instruments; and the score is treacherously transported across enemy lines. The epilogue sees Eliasberg preparing for the iconic performance of the Symphony, which was broadcast by loudspeakers to those fighting on the front lines. Despite the novel’s flaws, the inspirational story is gripping and it is the theme of achieving the impossible which accounts for the book’s power. Yes, there may be artistic license: if you want verified facts, look elsewhere. But for a novel which balances the horror of the siege with a gripping narrative, ‘The Conductor’ is worth getting hold of.

Tuning up: a look at Wider Opportunities

Across the country, children everywhere are embarking upon a new school year. For many in Key Stage two, it is the first time that they will have had the chance to play an instrument. This is thanks to the Wider Opportunities programme. This supports the governmental pledge that ‘…over time, all pupils in primary schools who wish to, will have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument’. Open to all in school years 4 and 5, the pupils are coached on instruments or voice (free of charge). Wider Opportunities is expected to take place over a prolonged period of time, and there is no set structure for the programme.

The scheme has been going for some time now. I first experienced it myself 6 years ago while on work experience at a local school. During their weekly music lessons, either their regular teacher or the local peripatetic tutor led the class for an hour of ensemble playing. Although the scheme is nation-wide, the absence of a set structure allows each school to determine their own approach. My experience saw the children led through simple tunes and canons. Accompanied by piano, the end of each session always saw certain pupils volunteering for solos, demonstrating an uncharacteristic boost in confidence. Several of those on the scheme even volunteered to play in the school orchestra, sending out their counter-melodies with enthusiasm.

Although in the short term these lessons are undoubtedly valuable, there are some flaws which need to be ironed out. The rubric leaves the teacher to choose whether these lessons to replace the music curriculum for the entire year, or if additional curriculum lessons should be provided. Thus, it is more than possible that the entire theoretical aspect to music could be omitted. I think it’s brilliant that youths should all get the chance to play an instrument, but surely theory should be made compulsory? Its role is stressed for those who learn music privately, and it seems unfair that certain schools should neglect this framework. Since the scheme is grounded upon its supposed equality, this should certainly be reconciled.

However, an unexpected effect of such an opportunity is the slump in numbers of students pursuing instruments to a higher level. The group environment may mean that crucial technical corrections are overlooked (particularly in the case of clarinet and flute), and must be corrected later. Perhaps the transition to a more individualistic experience is less desirable: music as a fun social experience is replaced by a focus on more ‘serious’ technical elements, and the ladder of grades by which progress is often measured. Maybe parents ‘tick the box’ of their children learning instruments, and see it as unnecessary for their offspring to continue with lessons. In any case, this is bound to have a knock-on effect for ensembles, both at high school and outside. How, then, is it possible to keep the children keen and playing? Continuity is the key. It is impractical for this scheme to be extended for a longer period of time: certain children may not ‘take’ to their given instrument, and some are bound to progress at different rates. Boredom is definitely not conducive to such an environment. Due to the expense of music lessons, perhaps the answer is in extra-curricular clubs and classes. This relies upon enthusiasm on the teacher’s part, and numbers will most likely drop as homework escalates.

Despite the minor flaws, Wider Opportunities is doing wonders for debunking the stigma that often surrounds those who play instruments at school. The freedom given to teachers offers them the chance to tailor lessons to accommodate popular songs, or coordinate the lessons with larger school events (for example, a Christmas carol concert). My only worry is the impact that such an abrupt cessation of the lessons will have. Music is not just something to be pigeon-holed into a couple of years, but something which is open to much broader exploration. Such a scheme gives a tantalising taste of what playing has to offer, and I hope it continues to flourish.

Music at the Maltings

I’ve just returned from watching my brother perform in a Suffolk Youth Music concert at Snape Maltings. Having visited the concert hall regularly since I first performed there at the age of 13, it holds not only a sentimental attraction but a musical one too. The hall’s excellent acoustic justifies its international reputation, and its position nestled amidst the reed beds lends it a character missing from the corporate designs of many cosmopolitan concert halls.

The scattering of buildings which makes up the artistic complex is situated next to the River Alde. From art galleries to food shops, the site has a rich cultural offering. On this sunny day, retro vans offered drinks and ice creams to the bustling site. A light breeze skimmed across the river while the reedbeds danced, and a few solitary birds made their way through the thick mud at the edge. Art installations are dispersed around the site, blurring the man-made and the natural. It is possible to lose yourself on long walks around the reed beds, and to find yourself completely alone.

Today, though, I have different plans. The menu at the Plough and Sail (a mere two minutes from the hall itself) is packed with fresh seasonal ingredients, and the wing of skate I choose is particularly fine. After a perusal of the deli, we head over to the main concert hall. I lose myself in the shop in the foyer, including special memorabilia to commemorate Britten’s upcoming anniversary. In the end, I come away with the New Aldeburgh Anthology, a collection of prose, poems and pictures.

Although the site offers opportunities for culture of all sorts, it is the music which my family (and many others) have come for. The site’s isolation offers a special inspiration to musicians, hence its use for various schemes including Aldeburgh Young Musicians and the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. In these educational projects lies the continued presence of local hero Benjamin Britten. Britten moved to Snape in 1944, creating the first Aldeburgh Festival just four years later. Music here has since gone from strength to strength, from the addition of the Snape Proms in the 1980s to the development of malting and storage buildings to a collection of studios and offices. The small village has attracted leading musicians from across the world, and will be playing a large role in the celebration of its most famous son over the following 18 months.

The concert I saw was the culmination of a year’s work for the flagship ensembles of Suffolk Music. Featuring Strings, Wind Band and Orchestra, the youths presented an evening ranging from Coldplay to Shostakovich under the eaves of the former malthouse. Many of the 830 seats were taken, and the players earned enthusiastic applause. Over the course of the last year, the ensembles have taken part in intense courses and (for the Wind Band and Orchestra) concert tours in Europe. The process has been overseen by dedicated peripatetic staff, and some passages could certainly give professional ensembles a run for their money. Near the end of the concert, Philip Shaw (Head of the County Music Service) outlined the framework of provision for music education, which is funded by the DfE and distributed by Arts Council England. He talked of how such extra-curricular musical experiences as these ensembles have prompted musicians to study music academically to various levels. However, a justification of the power of these ensembles seemed unnecessary after two hours of playing full of passion and conviction. The grand finale of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture was the highlight of the evening for me. Players from the wind band joined the orchestra for the climactic fanfare of the piece, the 23 brass players blasting the roof off with Simon Bolivar-style gusto. Given Philip Shaw’s speech, the celebratory tone seemed perfect. The buzz after the concert as everyone dispersed into the balmy night showed that such music (and such a venue) is not being taken for granted.

An eccentric personality: Erik Satie

This week I’ve been rediscovering the music of Erik Satie on my iPod. Although underappreciated today (with many only venturing into his Gymnopédies), Satie was immensely popular in early 20th century Paris. This cosmopolitan hub allowed him to mingle with the European avant-garde, where he formed associations with the provocative Dada movement. His body of compositions can be characterised by his desire to experiment, and ranges from early Debussian works to the score for the surrealist ballet Parade.

However, it is his piano music which attracts me the most.  Although it may appear to be less than impressive on a superficial level, that is its appeal. The glacial eeriness of his Gnossiennes is produced by a feeling of emptiness. While his contemporaries were packing their scores full of notes, his were striking due to their simplicity. The idea that such stillness could come from such a bustling artistic hub is surprising, but it is this difference which set Satie apart. He took a completely different direction through the field of musical modernism to other composers, a reflective and introverted approach which carried a quiet honesty. This haunting effect is partially through Satie’s manipulation of time. The repetitive figures create a circular effect, nullifying the linear progress of time with short melodies and modal harmony. Satie designated such works as musique d’ameublement, or ‘furniture music’. Such music was characterised by its intention to be invisible, thus critiquing background music and questioning the place of high art in society.

Not even these works were protected from Satie’s ironic humour, as his 1893 work Vexations demonstrates. The inscription “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities” heads the piece. Rather aptly, John Cage organised its premiere – which lasted for over 18 hours. The work challenges the public’s boundaries for tolerance and prompts all sorts of philosophical questions.

The ballet score for Parade is in vast contrast to such works, with its eclectic score referencing all types of music. The 1917 ballet was created in collaboration with Jean Cocteau, and remains one of Satie’s most praised works. His desire to challenge the boundaries resurfaced with the use of such objects as milk bottles and typewriters to make noise, and the premiere descended into riot. This is one of Satie’s most frequently performed works, although even this has a poor performance tradition. A perusal of the BBC Proms Archive reveals a mere 14 performances of Satie’s works over the entire history of the Proms (of which 8 were Debussy’s orchestration of the Trois gymnopédies and three of Parade).

Satie’s influence upon other composers cannot be questioned: he served as mentor for the Parisian group Les Six, and paved the way for the music of Experimentalist and Minimalist movements. Even if his music doesn’t cry out for attention, it still sounds as thought-provoking and as revolutionary as it must have at its premiere. Satie’s non-conformism and humour produced some truly unique works, and he deserves to be recognised for his quality and variety of achievements.

A drive in Northumberland

Hadrian’s Wall ripples in the distance as we wind our way along country roads.  Grazing sheep are scattered around the sprawling fields, sheltered from the gusts of wind by the ramshackle drystone walls. The ominous clouds which form a veil above us cast a metallic light upon the vista, highlighting the gashes of stone which peek out from under the bulges of land.

I am on holiday to the region with my family, and we are taking a roundabout route to Kielder after visiting the Roman fort of Vindolanda. Occupied for over 300 years, the site is still undergoing excavation. Piles of tools used by the keen amateurs who annually descend upon the site lie in a heap at the edge of the largest area which is uncovered. Even though we visit in August, the visitors to the site are braced against the wind in coats and jeans, nimbly hopping over remnants of walls to conjure images of the bustling bath house; the Celtic temple; the strong room. A sip from a thick and steaming hot chocolate clasped between stiff hands is much needed, and I look around the recently-constructed museum. The focal exhibit is a selection of tablets, featuring letters from a range of those living on the site. The countryside surrounding the Vindolanda site seems remarkably unchanged: the stream still gurgles down shallow waterfalls, and tree-carpeted hills slope into the distance.

As we make our way onwards, we pass through a selection of small villages. Local stone houses are adorned with flower baskets, and Range Rovers sit outside cosy pubs. The roads run through the weather-battered countryside, undeterred by rollercoaster-worthy dips and slaloms. We finally arrive at Kielder after a detour through the Forest Park of the same name.  Crawling along gravel-strewn roads, we pass through views which merge from heather-covered heath to dense pine forest. Large portions of the scenery are barren after being stripped of trees, the naked land seeming apt under the unforgiving grey skies. Finally emerging, we pass through the village and head towards Kielder Water. Dotted with camping and caravan sites, the enormous reservoir is bordered by lush green forests. We pull in for a drink on the water’s edge, the weather looking increasingly foreboding. The surface of the water undulates violently, the only boat in sight a small (and passenger-less) ferry which soon ceases action. Red kites circle up high, and children scamper around playgrounds while their anorak-wearing parents huddle on benches.

As we wind our way back, we pass through a string of villages and towns constructed from local stone. The clouds darken ever further, but we are safe from the moods of nature in the comfort of the car. We slow almost to a halt for a horse rider. Between the bad-tempered elements which mould the landscape and the free roaming of the animals, it is just another reminder of the inescapable power of nature here.