sun 14/08/2022

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

Schnittke's uneven Faust take follows quirky Haydn and Wagner

The Schnittke Festival kicked off on Sunday at the Royal College of Music with electric and bass guitars as part of the unwieldy ensemble. Lodged in the Royal Festival Hall last night, Vladimir Jurowski’s programming continued in the second concert with similar flair, but this time two 18th-century horns and two cors anglais were the odd ones out. We were back in 1764 and the early days of the symphony viewed through the prism of Joseph Haydn – every inch as much of an original as Wagner and Schnittke, who were to join him later, and just as able to bend the past to his own ends.

So a reduced London Philharmonic Orchestra, playing with some of the period-instrument style Jurowski has acquired from his time with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, plunged us into the Symphony No 22’s singular re-enactment of a Bach chorale. The following three movements are less original, save for one quirky little turn of phrase in the finale, and a tad monotonous in the same key of E flat (because the valveless horns are powerless to move). But the simplicity worked by way of extreme contrast with the great mystery of another unison, this time unaccompanied: the opening chant of Wagner’s Prelude to Parsifal.

Here “time becomes space”, as the opera’s chief philosopher tells the eponymous novice, and Jurowski made the audience feel the change of air immediately with pregnant pauses in which not a slight clearing of the throat broke the silence. His approach to Wagner’s holy aura flows naturally and unportentously in a way that very few of his contemporaries achieve. Every horn chord, every tremolo knows its place, so the gradual spreading of pain across the canvas was quite imperceptible. Here was the very same theme of Amfortas’s wound which Prokofiev quotes in the stricken Sixth Symphony, memorably sculpted by Jurowski with the Royal College of Music’s student orchestra on Sunday.

Yet Wagner, unlike Prokofiev, eventually achieves redemption. When Jurowski first conducted the LPO in Parsifal music a couple of seasons back, he followed the Prelude with the opera’s problematic apotheosis. This time there was also a severe jolt forward, but to the oboe’s searing humanity in the Good Friday Music, treading air – as did we at the interval, wondering whether Schnittke could match that.

The answer was both yes and no. Yes, eventually, because the Faust Cantata he composed in 1985 is a daring one-off. No, at first, because the opera in which he all but entombed it 11 years later, past his full creative vigour, taxes any singer’s ability to leap around the vocal compass – "the voice is not an elevator" is a maxim arrogantly ignored by most contemporary composers – and the audience’s patience with reams of grey recitative. “This is an opera; show us, don’t just tell us”, you wanted to shout to Markus Brutscher’s narrator, an Evangelist without a good text or a sense of proportion (Schnittke’s fault) and with few technical resources to deal with the insane vocal challenges (blame Mr Brutscher’s teacher).

The agony of the medieval Dr Johann Faust is hardly more engaging. “You signed the contract,” was my reaction this time, “bring on the dancing girls and stop whingeing about it." Which is all he does in several wan monologues. Even Gounod’s one-dimensional protagonist is more sympathetic. Schnittke’s role requires a cavernous bass, which Stephen Richardson certainly possessed, and a cast-iron top, which he lacked; John Tomlinson, at one point scheduled for this performance, had it in his prime.

That the first half of Jurowski’s chosen excerpts came to life at all was due to the singular choral writing, well taken by the youthful Moscow Conservatory Chamber Choir, and to the Mephistophiles (Schnittke’s spelling) of Andrew Watts, male soprano extraordinary rather than the usual counter-tenor. His clarion pitching rang bells; this was the outstanding Prince Go-Go in English National Opera’s breathtaking production of Ligeti’s Le grand macabre, which shares with the Schnittke work a desultory start and a compelling denouement. The banal spirit of Ricky Gervais, earlier bodysnatched by Ben Heppner in the Royal Opera Tristan und Isolde, now inhabited this slick, red-tied devil, soon joined in Annabel Arden’s spare but telling direction by an even creepier Mephistophila, Anna Larsson.

At first you wondered why Larsson’s statuesque contralto, supreme in Mahler, was engaged to scream Schnittke’s notes, gamely as she did it. The answer came in the cantata section of the work, the opera’s third act, when Faust’s protracted demise calls forth the Cabaret Mephistophiles and a pop duet is followed by her infernal tango – the ultimate dance of death, Schnittke’s masterstroke. After that, we’re left wondering about Dr Johann’s true fate.

As we should be; all those questions which the opera’s simplistic take on the medieval tale have failed to raise at last come into play, and a woodblock tick-tocks away into eternity. Schnittke, unlike Faust, is rescued in the nick of time by his earlier self, returning to the form established in a pre-performance event by the young Harpham Quartet’s ravishing and painful interpretation of the multilayered Third String Quartet. The uneven Russian genius survives another round, kindling our curiosity for further instalments in the series.

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