Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Concert afterchat: bells and Poe

At the end of his hard working week with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and just after Rachmaninov’s serene epilogue to all the doom of Poe’s funeral bells had sent us floating down from the Festival Hall, a beaming and relaxed Vladimir Jurowski joined me for a post-concert dialogue in the RFH’s ballroom zone. That’s another prime pick from Chris Christodoulou’s Proms shots above – we annually present a selection on The Arts Desk – which seemed like a better lead than the diplo-mate’s loyal phoneshot of the afterchat, though here it is anyway.

We talked about the weird disappointment of this brilliantly planned Bells ‘n Poe programme having been cancelled a month ago on what should have been its first airing: the lights failed at the Usher Hall during the Edinburgh Festival so – no concert (and they’d even flown in a baritone to replace indisposed Vladimir Chernov at 24 hours’ notice). VJ mused on The Bells’ ill-starred history - it has a reputation, it seems, somewhat akin to the Scottish Play - despite its highest place in the composer’s self-esteem, starting with the misplaced dedication to Mengelberg who’d only just dissed the work (hard to understand why). 

Although the ‘choral symphony’ has plenty of light and shade, it fascinates me especially how Rachmaninov goes beyond the bleak finality of Poe’s death-ode and provides the most levitational – I have to repeat that word, especially in the context of Saturday’s performance – conclusion imaginable. Jurowski remembered, as so well do I, Svetlanov’s last concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and how, knowing he was very shortly to die, the great man stretched out the transcendence to seeming infinity. That searing event has been issued on CD, but isn’t on YouTube, but another classic Russian recording is, albeit somewhat oddly via a crackly LP rather than the CD transfer – Kondrashin’s Moscow Philharmonic stunner. The final Lento lugubre begins at 23’36; the levitation comes at 32’40 though needs to be prefaced with at least a bit of the preceding gloom to have its due effect.

Here's some more of Poe's text if you feel like accompanying your listening with a bit of authentic English-language flavour (though even enlarged, it's not always easy to decipher):

VJ seemed pleased with his own matured interpretation of a work he loves: I mentioned the exceptional balances in the glitter of the sleigh-bells movement, and he felt that tenor Sergei Skorokhodov and the amalgamated London Symphony and London Philharmonic Choirs had really, for once, come through the orchestral busy-ness. He wanted a feeling of exultation, not craven terror, in the ‘Alarm Bells’ movement: this, after all, was 1913, when the imaginative anticipation of sweeping away the old order was far from the horrifying reality it would become.

I was impressed how little Jurowski repeated of what he’d recorded for the LPO’s website, where he expounded so eloquently on the place of bells in Russian culture as the only instruments heard in Orthodox services and on the Russification of Edgar Allan Poe. Even so, he is clearly so involved with the poetry of Konstantin Balmont, Poe’s distinguished Russian (hyper) translator, that he had more to say about this silver-age master. We to- and fro-d a bit about the other bell pieces on the programme, post-war collages by Shchedrin and Denisov which I think I’ve written just enough about on the Arts Desk review. Curiously there is a performance of Denisov's impressionistic Bells in the Fog on YouTube, though alas the audience is not as receptive to its cusp-of-silence beginning as Saturday night's crowd was.The big picture, by the way, is of Sofia Gubaidulina, for me the greatest voice of contemporary Russian music.

Jurowski also passionately defended the other Poe-inspired piece on the programme, Myaskovsky’s Silentium. As he pointed out, the Poe fable of a man who can withstand anything the Devil throws at him except silence is a tale for our times, perhaps even more so than for the late 1830s when it was written. So far as the symphonic parable is concerned, there’s a loyal Jurowski family connection with the honourable, somewhat lugubrious Myaskovsky, and I couldn’t help but admire the dogged sombreness of this early piece, so often mentioned in the correspondence with Prokofiev. Jurowski sticks to the line that ‘Myaskusya’ develops his symphonic ideas better than Prokofiev, who was often openly dismissive of his musical substance – as was I when VJ conducted the Sixth Symphony, a work I’d been hoping to like as well as I had on a first recorded hearing.

So I suspect VJ was being a bit naughty in passing a passionate Myaskovsky admirer’s question about why we didn’t hear more of the 27 symphonies over to me, and what I thought might be the problem. But I voiced my mixed feelings about the unevenness and deferred back to him again, since he’s spent time studying the works as I have not.

Come question time, I was glad one lady took us back to the earlier concert in the week, and – observing how the players seemed to have a whale of a time in the ‘symphonic picture’ drawn from Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten - asked whose selection it was. Jurowski’s, of course, and I’m glad we agreed on the awfulness of Strauss’s own ‘fantasia’, which VJ pointed out contains much of the worst music in the opera. There was another great critical split along the lines of the Martinů divide on how effective this much more interesting selection was; having accepted that we weren’t going to get the voices, I tried to enjoy it for what it was, and found myself seduced by all those odd extra instruments on full display: the Chinese gongs, the glass harmonica (pictured below in hands-on by Thomas Bloch; no working one in either of the big Russian cities, Jurowski told me about a performance there), the four tenor tubas. It gave me a fresh perspective on Strauss’s extraordinary score, and you can’t ask for more than that. 

Coming up: three titanic programmes from the tireless Jurowski, linking British and Russian attitudes to ‘War and Peace’, marking the bicentenary of the Battle of Borodino and 70 years since the premiere of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. It should be amazing to hear the Russian National Orchestra tackle Vaughan Williams’s Sixth – VJ reports that Muscovite audiences were stunned by that unique, drifting finale – and combined Anglo-Russian forces in Shostakovich 7. Too much choice this week, alas: to be loyal to my BBC Symphony Orchestra class, I have to attend that band’s first concert of the season tomorrow and miss Jurowski’s Prokofiev War and Peace scenes: not too great a wrench when the alternative is to hear Jukka-Pekka Saraste conduct Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony and the peerless Alice Coote singing the most beautiful song in the world, Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, among the Rückert Lieder. 

Image of a lighthouse bell in Primorsky Krai in Russia's far east above by V Kotelnikov, courtesy of Russian language Wikipedia


wanderer said...

Congratulations to whoever is behind this (apologies if I should know) and especially to Vladimir Juwoski for his stamina. It is what conductors say that I'm most keen to hear and yet programme notes, down here at least, have everything but, and anything written about opera seems these days to begin and end with the director.

I envy the audience who were so lucky to be there and join in. We need a Nice David. Is there a broadcast, or recording?

David said...

Ah yes - I should have headed with 'London Philharmonic', duly amended - it was their special events department which decided to balance pre-performance talks with 'aftershow' discussions. And VJ is such a keen communicator, in immaculate English which teems with his Renaissance-man ideas.

It's always a good crowd, but sadly they don't record these events because, apparently, there's too much background noise in the RFH foyer. I think a talk I did with Vasily Petrenko about Shostakovich - pre-performance, in the hall itself - IS available on the LPO site.

What you can also hear, if you get the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer down under, is Wednesday's Strauss/Zemlinsky concert, at least until tomorrow evening when the seven-day replay facility runs out.

Susan Scheid said...

The conductor photographs over at the arts desk are brilliant--and of course I love the one of John Adams. The internet is a great thing (when it works properly). I was able to listen to all of the Composer of the Week interviews with John Adams on BBC3, though it did strike me as ironic that I was listening to a radio station across the pond for one of our own. Anyway, lots to explore in this post, and I intend to!

Laurent said...

David the things I learn reading your blog. Thank you.

Susan Scheid said...

So now I have spent some quality time here, always a delight. I only wish I had nine lives, for how am I to listen to everything I want to hear and really ought to hear? I’ve just listened to Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (as sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson). I can well understand that you find it to be “the most beautiful song in the world,” even though, with all the art songs you know, I do wonder how you manage to choose. As is true of so much music, this isn't a piece I knew at all, and must thank you again for yet another of your glorious musical gifts. The Denisov was fascinating, though amazing how terrible the audience was—you’d have thought it was the NY Phil . . .

The instruments you identify for the Strauss are fascinating. Somehow I wouldn’t have expected this kind of exotica from him, but then, what do I know? It reminds me of my recent visit to the New York Public Library. I’d had them haul Qigang Chen’s Reflet d’un temps disparu out of cold storage so I could look at it and see if I could figure out how he made some of those wonderful, atmospheric sounds. It doesn’t seem to matter that my skills at reading such things are below rudimentary, I had the time of my life, listening through my headphones and following along. He used, among other things, three different sets of percussion instruments, including temple blocks and another type of blocks (don’t have my notes in front of me, so can’t say for sure). Just like what I’ve come to call Amelia’s theme in Dylan’s Atlas, Martinů’s Julietta chords you showed me where to find (not to mention la petite phrase), I don’t know, maybe it’s that I know so little that makes it so very thrilling to recognize and be able to hear what’s going on in a work.

Now I’m listening to The Bells, which I do know, though I haven’t listened to it for so long I’ve almost forgotten and am delighted to come back to it.

It would have been such fun to hear or better yet see audio of that interview, to see you in action. Perhaps one day!

David Damant said...

Has anyone seen the play "The Bells" by Leopold Lewis ( based on the French play " Le Juif Polonaise" ) - in which Henry Irving made such a sensation as Mathias the Burgomaster? Having murdered a Jew years before Mathias is haunted by sledge bells and Irving's performance was apparently so moving that the theatre was silent for a time after the curtain, except for a woman having hysterics

David said...

Sue - you can hear Alice Coote's truly great performance of the Mahler songs with Jukka-Pekka Saraste for the next six days here on Radio 3. The first Lied is at 28'21, 'Ich bin der Welt' at 41'35. It's on the same level as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's performance, but I think I'm right in saying that's only with the piano, missing the extra layer you get with Mahler's exquisite orchestration. You might enjoy the new Michael Zev Gordon piece at the start of the concert, too: not unforgettable, but not dull either.

Gosh, David, I wonder if ANYONE has seen that play in living memory. I guess it lives on as a cornerstone of Irving's achievement.

Susan Scheid said...

Thanks so much for the link. You're right that the Lieberson was with piano only, and it's lovely to hear the orchestral version, not to mention Coote. You were right to point me in the direction of Zev Gordon, too. It may go on a bit too long, but I do find it very appealing and certainly not dull. Did I hear a quote from Mahler's 9th in there, or am I dreaming? Anyway, thanks again.

Willym said...

Now now you must underestimate Diplomate's talents as a photographer! :-)

Once again you have done it - I have a recording (I guess its still a recording if its on iTunes???) of The Bells with Muti and LPO. I listened to it once after wallowing in the glory of Ivan the Terrible but am going to have to give it a listen. With new ears because of you - as always caro.

Those photos of the conductors are marvellous - Papano caught the way I so fondly remember him from all those concerts at Santa Cecilia.

Dearest David how I do wish I could be there to hear the marvels that you do and more importantly with you as a guide both before and after.

Willym said...

And do seem to recall from my early years of reading Plays and Players - does it still exist? - that one of the regional theatres revived The Bells with some success. And you've sent me scampering to the Gutenberg Project as I gave my copy of it - in a book of 19th century melodramas - away years ago.

Susan Scheid said...

Tonight I caught the last bit of Shostakovich's 11th on BBC3, reminding me how transporting his work is, so now I have entered a siege of Shostakovich—currently the 8th. Such remarkable music! That's not why I write, though, and please forgive me for clogging up your comments, but I have my BBC magazine today, with your review on Suk, a composer whose work I don't know but now must . . . but that is still not what prompted me to write. It is this, in the review of Glass's "Symphony No. 9": Glass is cited as saying that "he thinks of it as being close to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, insofar as it begins and ends very quietly." The only words I have for this are the one phrase in Latin I have retained from a thousand years of lawyering: "res ipsa loquitur" (the thing speaks for itself). Ah, but all the young people seem to love him. I can't comprehend it, and I recently made myself sit through the entire 4 hours 30 minutes of a performance of Einstein on the Beach, contemplating this issue, so as to try and understand. The result? I cannot. I’m entirely with you, and a comment you made that I may have misremembered, but cherish just the same: “Get over it.”

David said...

Willym - interesting that someone resurrected that dodgy-sounding play...is that where we get the histrionic cry 'The bells, the bells!' from?

Sue - no doubt Mahler Nine was in the Gordon piece. I heard lots of the Fifth, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde.

So pleased you're rediscovering Shostakovich. We had a stonking performance of the uneven Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony from a huge orchestra made up of mixed Russian National and London Philharmonic Orchestra players - the review is just up over on The Arts Desk. Outshone as a work by the Fourth - do listen to Saraste's stunning performance in the second half of that BBCSO concert.

As for Glass, the sheer nerve of even bringing Mahler's Ninth into the same breath as his own!

Susan Scheid said...

David, I can't thank you enough for noting the Shostakovich 4th performance to me (I’d somehow missed that it was part of the same concert!). I didn't know that work, I realize, and this performance was one wallop of an introduction. I've also read both of your Arts Desk reviews related to the two performances of Shostakovich works. I passed on the one on the 4th and re the Zev Gordon to some “new music” friends, as I thought it was particularly instructive on where “new music” hits and misses. What I like so much about your perspective (and this is dawning on me more and more), is that you're simply not swayed by fashion. You know what you think is good, and you know how to back it up with the evidence. I’ve still got the last notes of the 4th ringing in my head.

Howard Lane said...

We too were transfixed by the Shostakovich symphony as in-car entertainment without even knowing which one it was, other than that it commemorated the massacre of 1905. We only heard the first movement so thank Bog for listen again, which we vowed to do. We were en route to the marvellous Cinema Museum for an evening of music improvised to dance and short films. A rare evening out for us both and the first since that extraordinary meal and very entertaining visit chez vous.

The Cinema Museum is a fantastic space with a brilliant collection in a former workhouse whose most celebrated inmate was the young Charlie Chaplin. Shamed by ignorance of its existence we now plan to visit there as much as possible.

Surely 'The bells, the bells' comes from Charles Laughton's Quasimodo, at least I remember acting it out in a quasi Tony Hancock caricature voice and stance in the playground.

David said...

Sue - at the risk of this becoming a love-in, as I've put it before, you are a listener in a thousand. And those well-weighed words mean a heck of a lot to me. Thanks.

Howard - I think the Shostakovich symphony you caught was the Eleventh, broadcast on Friday night (at the same time as Jurowski's amazing Russian-British performance of the Seventh or Leningrad was happening at the Southbank). 7 & 11 seem to me to work best in special concert-hall circumstances; but 4 is absolutely extraordinary in any shape or form.

And yes, I'm sure now you mention it that Laughton set the trend. Cinema Museum is well supported by J, who says it's a Very Good Thing.

Susan Scheid said...

Taking a further risk, to borrow your word: Just have to tell you, I received a gift certificate from the Edu-Mate, and winging their way toward me as I write are the Jarvi/Scottish National Orchestra Shostakovich 4th (Chandos) and the complete Jarvi/Bamberg Martinů Symphonies. I thought of you many times yesterday, for I was in NYC and ended up going from one concert/recital to another at Lincoln Center (three in all & the music included Brahms, Ravel, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Fauré, and Britten). Where I most thought of you was at the Violin Competition Finals at Julliard. The three contestants played Britten’s Violin Concerto (with piano accompaniment—that took an ear adjustment to take in, to be sure). I wondered what you would have thought. All were strong players, needless to say. The one I thought played with the most musicality did end up winning, but I would have loved to know the “why,” and you would have known exactly why. Anyway, it was a grand day (and as you can see, no “new music” in sight, though I have certainly not abandoned my enjoyment of “things new”). PS: Speaking of “things new,” while I will comment “officially” Over There, conventional you are NOT—and rest assured you were not alone about that book. A treasured and very smart friend wrote at length by e-mail things she thought were not polite enough to post.

David said...

Well - that is good news. I don't think you'll regret the Jarvi Martinu cycle, even though the splendid BBCSO/Belohlavek set is flavour of the month.

Gosh - Britten Vn Cto with piano: what, three performances one after another? That sounds like a never to be repeated experience (though I love the work). You sound to have had quite a day in NYC.