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29 Nov 2012

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Vladimir Jurowski said all the right things during a brief address at the opening of the concert. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony should not be regarded as the climax of the performance, but as the fifth movement in a single work, whose theme was human suffering and the strength of the human spirit, never quashed by the former.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Overture: Fidelio, op.72c; Arnold Schoenberg, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, op.41; Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw, op.46; Luigi Nono, Julius Fučik (United Kingdom premiere); Beethoven, Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Julius Fučik


It was, moreover, a rare pleasure to experience such bold and coherent programming. The problem, alas, was that performances of these works — or performance of this ‘work’ — were not always convincing; it was, perhaps predictably but no less sadly, Beethoven who suffered most. Two of the other ‘movements’, Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and Nono’s Julius Fučik received excellent performances. A curate’s egg, then, which was hardly the intention.

The Fidelio Overture opened proceedings. It was hard driven, though to be fair, I have heard worse. Odder was the strange, almost balletic lightness of tone, strange until one realised that it arose from a fatal lack of harmonic grounding. I was put in mind of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s recent Philharmonia performance of the Fifth Symphony, which ended up sounding more like Delibes than Beethoven; it too had inspired programming, the symphony prefacing Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero, yet was let down in Beethoven’s case by inferior performance. And so, Beethoven’s music merely floated along. It was all efficiently despatched by the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the problem lay in Jurowski’s conception. Once again, moreover, Jurowski indulged his odd penchant for mixing modern horns, which, give or take the odd split note, played splendidly, and natural trumpets, whose rasping certainly did not help matters.

Schoenberg was next up. First came his Ode to Napoleon, given in its version for narrator, piano, and string orchestra. I have never been especially convinced by the orchestral version; a string quartet works far better. Sadly, this performance did nothing to alter that judgement. Part of the problem is — and was — that the piano does not blend well with the strings and ends up sounding like a concertante instrument rather than a member of a chamber ensemble. Despite excellent playing from Catherine Edwards, the effect was unconvincing. Robert Hayward contributed an excellent rendition of Byron’s poem, relishing text and subtext alike to chilling effect. Jurowski did not help matters for at least the first half of the performance. Once again, harmonic depth was lacking and direction was disturbingly metronomic. There was little or no sense of the score’s roots in German tradition, not least that of Beethoven. Having said that, Jurowski’s reading improved considerably. By the time we reached the words, ‘If still she loves thee, hoard that gem, ‘Tis worth thy vanish’d diadem!’ the summoned ghosts of Romanticism duly haunted. The stanza, ‘Thou Timour…’ accomplished, perhaps for the first time with respect to this performance, speed without (the wrong sort of) brutality. Schoenberg’s furious inverse ode to Napoleon/Hitler ended with just the right sense of false triumph, the final E-flat cadence — an ironic echo of the Eroica — falling flat as it must. Sadly, a performance that really gathered pace and conviction was blighted by some appalling audience behaviour, not least a French-speaking — yes, literally ‘speaking’ — person in the row in front of me, who flashed around his Blackberry for most of the time.

A Survivor from Warsaw completed the first half. It suffered even worse from the Blackberry wielder, who proceeded not only to type messages throughout the performance, but to chatter to his companion and even to fondle her. Such a reaction to commemoration of the Holocaust would have been obscene enough, but he actually seemed turned on not so much by genocide as by his indifference to it. (I should lay odds that he was a ‘beneficiary’ of ‘corporate hospitality’.) A Survivor survived, just about, but such behaviour ought to lead to a life-time ban. This work is less garrulous than the Ode to Napoleon and seemed to inspire Jurowski less fitfully. It received a more properly modern and focused performance, with less of the agitprop to it. Richly expressive and rhythmically alert, this was at last a reading that justified the hopes of the programme. Ghosts of Mahler and of Schoenberg’s earlier self pervaded work and performance alike. Hayward’s narration was once again excellent, a case in point the combination of brutality and beauty — Nazi æstheticisation of politics brought to mind — in Schoenberg’s setting of the Feldwebel’s words. The horrific race, quickly a stampede, into the chamber was such even before the word ‘stampede’. Militancy, inspired and terrifying, of the male chorus and its hymn, ‘Sh’ma Yisroel’ brought echoes of Bach as well as Beethoven, a spirited rejoinder to the vile ‘Aryanisation’ of German culture official policy had brought. (Even the text of Mozart’s Requiem had had to be altered, ‘Te decet hymnus Deus, in Sion et tibi reddetur votum in Ierusalem,’ rejected in favour of ‘Te decet hymnus Deus, in coelis et tibi reddetur votum hic in terra,’ in Bruno Kittel’s celebrated or notorious 1941 recording.)

The British premiere of Nono’s 1951 Julius Fučik opened the second half, wisely instructed to be performed without a break. (Not that that stopped some applauding the end of the first movement of the Beethoven…) Incomplete, it was first performed — posthumously — at the 2006 Munich Biennale (not almost sixty years ago, as Jurowski claimed, perhaps thinking of composition) and offers another of Nono’s tributes to the memory of the Czech communist and literary critic, hanged following captivity in Berlin in 1943 and an official hero for socialist Czechoslovakia. Fučik’s words — and ‘Voice’ — are employed in Intolleranza 1960 (dedicated to Schoenberg), and Nono’s Composizione per Orchestra no.1, also from 1951, offered another as-yet-secret memorial — programme music hardly the thing for Darmstadt — to Fučik. It was a pity we could not hear the Composizione as well, but perhaps that is just being greedy or plain unreasonable. A strange mini-biography awaited us on the screen as we returned from the interval. I hope that the problematic sentence was a matter of translation — though surely that could have been attended to’ since ‘sadly,’ as in ‘Sadly, the Nazis executed him in 1943,’ really is not the mot juste. The house lights went down so as to focus attention upon the stage and the searchlit interrogation of Fučik. (Still worse now, Blackberry man resumed its activities, lighting up a good part of the stalls with his screen and flashing red light.)

Jurowski captured to a tee the pointillistic post-Webern violence of Nono’s opening, likewise its lyricism that marks the composer’s music even at this stage as quite different from that of Stockhausen. The score blossomed — both in work and performance — into something perhaps surprisingly Schoenbergian, but then Nono never shared Boulez’s resolve to parricide, despite posthumous elevation as Schoenberg’s son-in-law. (It is rather misleading, by the way, to speak of him at this stage in that light, since he had yet to meet Schoenberg’s daughter, Nuria, let alone to marry her. Their meeting had to wait until the 1953 premiere of Moses und Aron.) Obar Ebrahim and Malcolm Sinclair offered excellent performances. This excellent account, antiphonal drumming and all, exuded brutality, psychoticism, and yet inviting, spellbinding beauty — not unlike the interrogation in Intolleranza. It was somehow not unlike a Bach cantata, though Fučik’s last words — ‘Believe me, this has taken nothing, absolutely nothing, from the joy that is in me and that heralds itself each day with some Beethoven theme or other … — inevitably brought one’s focus, insofar as it was not distracted by Blackberry antics, towards another great predecessor. Nor was Schoenberg forgotten. I could not help but think of Helmut Lachenmann’s transcription of a 1960 lecture Nono gave on A Survivor from Warsaw at Darmstadt. It was, Nono, said (my translation):

… the musical-æsthetic manifesto of our era. What Jean-Paul Sartre says in his essay, What is Literature?, about the problem ‘why write?’, is witnessed in utterly authentic fashion in Schoenberg’s creative necessity:

‘And if I am presented with this world and its injustices, then I should not look at it coldly, but … with indignation, that I might expose it and create it in its nature as injustice and abuse. …’

* * *

And further, should someone refuse to recognise Schoenberg’s [here Nono makes reference to a previous quotation from Arnold Schmitz on Bach] docere and movere, above all in his A Survivor from Warsaw, he should know that the words which the nineteen-year-old student, Giacomo Levi, wrote in his last letter before execution by the Fascists in Modena in 1942, are also addressed to him: ‘Do not say that you no longer wish to know anything about it. Consider this, that all that has happened is because you no longer wished to know anything more about it.’

Finally, then, the Fifth Symphony. The odd-numbered movements fared better than the even ones, but this was not, alas, a performance to justify the hopes placed in it. (Most infuriating or even obscene of all was Blackberry man sitting back to ‘enjoy’ what he presumably thought of as the ‘real’ music. He managed to wait until the first movement coda before checking for messages again.) Jurowski took the first movement fast but not entirely unreasonably so. If hardly the last word in profundity, then at least there was a much stronger sense of line than there had been in the overture. One had to put up with those dreadful rasping trumpets though. Beethoven’s extraordinary concision came through, if not the necessary weight of tone and message. It was good to have the opening of the slow movement greeted by a mobile telephone, but in truth, there was little of consequence to be disrupted here. Predictably swift, this is doubtless what passes for a Beethoven slow movement, even one marked “Andante can moto”, in the fashionable circles of an age seemingly incapable, a few Barenboim-like exceptions aside, of responding to the symphonic Beethoven. It sounded more like an intermezzo with unpleasant and arbitrary brass interventions than the unfolding of an inevitable musical narrative. The LPO very much seemed to be going through the motions — and I could not entirely blame them. It was genuinely sad that, following the two previous performances, this music should go for so little, but at least Jurowski’s tempo ensured that it was over relatively quickly.

Rather to my surprise, the scherzo fared better. It was full of menace, not least since melody, harmony, and rhythm now once again seemed to be related to one another. The counterpoint of the trio was irrepressible as well as clear, the ghostliness of the scherzo’s reprise not merely colourful but also chilling. Alas, the opening of the finale was marred by the plodding parade-ground sound of natural trumpets. The horns, by contrast, sounded glorious. It was full of incidental ‘moments’ — not quite in the Stockhausen sense: that might have been interesting… — yet the great sweep of Beethoven’s imagination seemed quite to elude Jurowski. This performance remained stubbornly earthbound, for all its superficial highlighting in apparent attempts to generate ‘excitement’. The drama has to come within; it cannot be appliqué. A message for our time indeed. Whilst I was greatly moved by A Survivor and by Julius Fučik, Beethoven — and this is less sad than tragic — elicited no such reaction. Jurowski’s programming was estimable, but it needed a Gielen or a Barenboim — or, imagine! a Klemperer or a Furtwängler — to carry it off.

Mark Berry

Performers and Production Information

Robert Hayward (narrator); Omar Ebrahim (Fučik); Malcom Sinclair (Voice in Julius Fučik). Annabel Arden (director); John B. Read (lighting); Pieter Hugo (protographer); Annalisa Terranova (video). Gentlemen of the London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Neville Creed); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Wednesday 28 November 2012.

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