Monday, 29 September 2008
On programming genius
No sooner have we recovered, in what is going to sound suspiciously like toadying to my BBC masters but which is sincerely meant, from the Proms programming genius of Roger Wright than we find ourselves caught in the welcome crossfire of the London orchestras and their masters, battling to outstrip each other in a new look for the concert scene.
Of course heady and unexpected brews of composers and various instrumental forces have always been with us, usually in the form of major festivals where sometimes indigestible slabs of one great figure or another have been leavened by the music of their contemporaries. It now seems more the way to spread these festival themes throughout the concert seasons. Gergiev presents 'Emigre', focusing on Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, across the LSO's jam-packed series; the BBC Symphony are rediscovering the great late romantic symphonies with master trainer Jiri Belohlavek in a long-term project which currently features, for instance, one Mahler symphony per season. Vladimir Jurowski has even more head-spinning plans, with connections between seasons as well as between and within programmes. Here he is on the first night of the London Philharmonic's new season at the Southbank's Royal Festival Hall, photograph courtesy of the LPO and Richard Haughton. Downloading to this blog for some reason turns Vladimir blue, so I've taken the liberty of reproducing the photo in black and white.
The launch picked up where the same team's blistering Kashchey double-whammy at the Proms left off. But this time the shepherd's-pipe bassoon of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring snaked out of the silence left by the luminous clouds of Ligeti's Atmospheres. Ligeti's last uncanny chord cluster faded away, Jurowski continued with his clear incisive beat and on we went.
It's not the first time this has happened - two seasons ago with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson placed the last mysterious pizzicato of the Tristan Prelude and into the space came the suspended dreamscape of Schoenberg's Erwartung (that was an easy concert for me to talk before - all three works, with Beethoven's Fifth to follow, launch in mid-air and take some time to let us know exactly where we are. Erwartung, in fact, never does so until the dreamer floats to the surface in that extraordinary filling of the last bars with uprising chromatic scales at different speeds). Yet Jurowski is an even more consistent and intellectually prepared conductor, almost frighteningly sure of what he wants and preparing his orchestra to the ultimate degree. How very different from the fitful brilliance of Gergiev, who ranges from the dazzling and quirky to the sloppy, coarse or just plain wrong.
Some found Jurowski's Rite lacking the necessary element of earth. It was obvious from his reining-in of those first reiterated chords that something was to be kept in check, but that was eventually unleashed in playing of incredible speed and precision, the earthiness just below the surface. I have never heard, nor ever will again unless this team reprises their triumph (which Jurowski often likes to do), the Dance of the Earth delivered with such clarity. It was of that order of execution - Bernstein's Mahler Five was another such - which only lets you feel and shed tears of exhilaration when it's over. And into the next space here came the steam-heat of Part Two's introduction, further graced by the most ravishing alto flute solo I've ever heard. Continuity is an element one relishes the older one gets, and so Jurowski's no-nonsense dovetailing of sections, and between every mood-swing of the final Sacrificial Dance, set the seal of mastery on this unforgettable interpretation.
I've rambled on there - let it rest - and almost ignored the first half. Those of us who had to miss Elder's Halle performance of Vaughan Williams Eight were looking forward to hearing it for the first time live: again, what supremacy of effect and orchestral colour, what fun with the Chinese gongs and the bells in the finale. Clearly Turnage's Mambo, Blues and Tarantella wasn't going to be dull, and he did his characteristically vivid stuff with drums v violin (Christian Tetzlaff) in the Mambo. But how right Richard Morrison was to describe the Blues as the Greys - here we entered the mindfug of undistinguished contemporary lyricism. Turnage can do the lyric stuff - Blood on the Floor had me in tears with the big sax solos, elegies to his brother who died from a heroin overdose - but only when he sticks closer to popular culture and abjures the swamp of serialism. Never mind; you have to keep trying with new works, and now that Jurowski and Salonen are here to lead the scene, we can be sure of a happy balance not only in the programmes but also in the audiences.