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Reviews

13 Nov 2018

The Eternal Flame: Debussy, Lindberg, Stravinsky and Janáček - London Philharmonic, Vladimir Jurowski

Although this concert was ostensibly, and in some respects a little tenuously, linked to the centenary of the Armistice, it did create some challenging assumptions about the nature of war. It was certainly the case in Magnus Lindberg’s new work, Triumf att finnas till… (‘Triumph to Exist…’) that he felt able to dislocate from the horror of the trenches and slaughter by using a text by the wartime poet Edith Södergran which gravitates towards a more sympathetic, even revisionist, expectation of this period.

The Eternal Flame Debussy, Lindberg, Stravinsky and Janáček - London Philharmonic, Vladimir Jurowski at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Andrea Danková

 

When I interviewed Lindberg back in 2001, just before the Related Rocks festival devoted to his music at the Southbank Centre, he explained how if you wanted to compose for the voice you had to solve the problem of melody - and that was something he found difficult to do. It’s probably true to say in Triumf att finnas till… that Lindberg has now resolved the issues he had with writing for the voice, though he has had to abandon much of his earlier style to achieve that. The composer who wrote Kraft in 1985, with its rhythmic punch and rough sonorities, or even works like Aura (1993-4) and Engine (1996) which were works of friction and owed at least something to the kaleidoscopic sound world of Berio or Stravinsky, has now become unmistakably Sibelian - the connectivity between Triumf and Kullervo feels as if it has been fully embraced.

I think if Södergran’s text is specifically an affirmation of the human will to triumph over slaughter, a more existential meditation on life rather than death, then Lindberg’s score sometimes tries to reflect the opposite. Although the work is written in seven stanzas, there is no discernible break between them. Lindberg’s writing for percussion is sustained throughout the work - and if it sounds like shell-fire, the dynamics adjusted to reflect distance and space, this is part of the effect. Your ears adjust to the muffling, just as they do to the penetrating explosions. It often feels like a rather bleak score; tenebrous, and rather like an instrumental requiem. My guest for this concert found it “somnambulant” (and I don’t believe he was alone in this view).

Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra played it well - though it ended up being considerably longer than the advertised playing time. For some, I can imagine Lindberg’s thematic material not surviving the length of time it took Jurowski to get through the music; for others, the score is powerful enough to suggest the apocalypse of war. I think the presumption that every syllable of Södergran’s text was meant to be heard was somewhat undermined by the occluded phrasing of the London Philharmonic Choir. I found much of it rather unintelligible.

Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles has no particular connection to the Armistice, though it is a ritual for the dead if not specifically relating to any one period of time. Radical to the last, Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles (virtually his last completed score from 1965-66) is not in the remotest liturgical, though its fusion of excoriating catharsis, skeletal writing and latent power is more than equal to the terrors of the First World War. Perhaps the most obviously cinematic of the works on the programme - the very opening sounds like gunfire - this is a piece that in a great performance can send shivers through the spine as it creates tension and dread through its terrifying climaxes. For such a compact work it amplifies astonishing force and mourning.

Jurowski and the London Philharmonic gave a very taut performance of it - pungent enough to yield much of the work’s fury and ritualism. The Dies irae had chorus and brass in almost perfect synchronicity, rich and resonant, and this was well contrasted with the piano and strings, almost strained to breaking by a feeling of tremulousness. Maxim Mikhailov’s bass in the Tuba mirum never felt on the verge of the collapse as I’ve sometimes felt in a few performances of this work - and it was idiomatically sung, with a beautifully phrased final note that is never easy to manage. Angharad Lyddon’s Lacrimosa wasn’t in perfect balance to the Tuba mirum, perhaps less divine than the writing suggests.

Janáček often feels as if he has been overlooked as a composer in the United Kingdom. Although Janáček’s The Eternal Gospel had been composed just before the outbreak of the Great War, it was subsequently revised after its premiere in Prague in February 1917. The text, although inspired by events centuries before that of Edith Södergran, does share a vision with her that is less bleak - even though by the time Janáček revised the score at the height of the war Jaroslav Vrchlický’s 1891 ‘legend’ had become completely unrecognisable. The score itself is magnificent, and is oddly reverential and deeply spiritual coming from the pen of a deeply agnostic composer.

This was in many respects a stand-out performance from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Particularly notable were the detailed and exquisite violin solos of the orchestra’s leader, Pieter Schoeman; composed to represent the angel and his gospel of love they were meticulous and perfectly tuned. Such was the clarity of the string playing in this performance, that even when the rest of the violin desks were playing, and no matter what the dynamic range, the different bar lines were absolutely audible. But this is also a score that surges with huge waves of sound - the opening movement rises inexorably and you never quite feel it relents. Janáček vividly described this music as representing “open arms longing to embrace the whole world” something which Jurowski’s conducting achieved by never scaling back on the dramatic impact.

Vsevolod Grivnov, singing Joachim of Fiore, seemed a little hesitant at first but had become mercurial and stentorian by his final epilogue. Andrea Danková, singing as the Angel, actually looked rather sinister; the way she glowered into the audience was, frankly, a little unsettling. But what a voice! I found her singing absolutely compelling. It’s certainly arguable this a soprano which is more resonant than most, has much darker tones, and it was distinctly less ethereal than the magical lines floated by the violin, but the contrast was magical. The London Philharmonic Choir gave their best performance of the evening; the only thing that disappointed was the Festival Hall organ which didn’t really register.

The inclusion of Debussy’s Berceuse héroïque, which had opened the concert, was the slightest of beginnings, though shares with the last work on the programme, The Eternal Gospel, the year 1914. Debussy’s memorial to Belgian forces resisting the German army at the outbreak of the war, it seems to pour into its five-minute duration a lot of elegy, but not much depth. Jurowski managed to make it sound much less like Debussy, and much longer than it needed to.

As with other concerts in this short, but largely compelling, season based on ‘Stravinsky’s Journey’ microphones were present.

Marc Bridle

Andrea Danková (soprano), Angharad Lyddon (mezzo-soprano), Vsevolod Grivnov (bass), Maxim Mikhailov (bass); Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Royal Festival Hall, London 10th November 2018.

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