Thursday, 26 November 2009

Schnittke's supernova

Imagine Wagner's in-the-beginning Rheingold Prelude burgeoning and exploding into other dimensions, and even then you can have only an inkling of what Schnittke's hour-long Third Symphony of 1981 sounds like in the flesh. I heard it live for the first time last night in the Royal Festival Hall, as part of the latest instalment in Jurowski's hugely ambitious Schnittke Festival.

All the historical stylisations and musical monograms, from Bach right through to Bernd Alois Zimmermann, go into the melting pot, or rather the meltdown, but I beg to differ for once with Ed Seckerson, the colleague with whom I'm usually most in harmony. He ends his Arts Desk review by writing what he whispered into my astonished ears at the end of last night's performance: 'I don't believe a note of it'. And I replied, rather fired up, 'I believe every single note'.

Which was a bit of an exaggeration: I almost lost sympathy when a big Mahlerian slow-movement finale took over from all the supernova build ups and bursts. But I soon came back into the fold. And it wasn't difficult given that Jurowski's preparation and all-stops-out realisation with the LPO stunned at every point. As John Riley said to me in another of our wildly enthusiastic post-concert blethers, just when you thought the centre couldn't hold and there had to be a blurring of textures, our hero kept it in brilliant focus.

So just as execution, it was as dazzling a performance as I think I'll ever hear in the concert hall. From Lee Tsarmaklis's consummately sung and danced tuba solo, so crucial a mooring early on in the work, to the last echoes of that hyper-romantic melody on the flutes, the LPO played with an almost frightening conviction (though I did see some of the players smiling at the huge grandiosity of it all, which was reassuring). Some folk still don't buy Schnittke's range of reference, but at its best - as here, in the Viola Concerto and the First Concerto Grosso - it all coheres with astonishing subterranean logic. As for revitalising the symphonic experience back in 1981, it struck me that Schnittke took up where Shostakovich's toppling masses in his Fourth Symphony left off (and remember Shostakovich could never be the same again after the infamous Pravda attack). I may well go back to one of several recordings, including Rozhdestvensky's which features another apt image on its cover, Bosch's outer panel paintings for The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Yet as John said, the live LPO/Jurowski experience took the symphony to a level which I'm presumptuous enough to think hasn't been reached before, nor ever will be again. And just in case you think I'm a bit of a Jurowski obsessive, I have to say that the intriguingly planned but rather oppressive first half - Webern Passacaglia, Lindberg Chorale (Bach's 'Es ist genug' the basis) and Berg's Violin Concerto - left me half asleep, for all its textural revelations.

Maybe I take too over-emotional a view of the Concerto and its dedication to the angelic 18 year old Manon, daughter of Alma and Walter Gropius, whose struggle and death are usually so vividly re-enacted here. I snapped her striking tombstone on Alma's grave just around the corner from Mahler's in Grinzing Cemetery.

Leonidas Kavakos, whose playing invariably hooks me, seemed to be keeping his distance. The playing didn't sing or cry out in the way I remember from Nigel's outlandish performance (dressed as a vampire - John Drummond apparently had to restrain him from applying a trickle of fake blood to the corner of his mouth).

In short, it felt like a dispassionate play-through, though beautifully balanced and with Kavakos (pictured above by Yannis Bournias) sensitively attuned to his colleagues. Afterwards, violinist and conductor re-convened to talk to Southbank Head of Music Marshall Marcus in the RFH Ballroom. I only just caught it because I was coming up from the cloakroom and there was Vladimir, approachable as ever and especially pleased that I'd picked up the Amfortas reference in Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony; he'd found another Parsifal quotation in it and one from Beethoven's Op. 111. Here are a couple of photos by the ever-reliable Chris Christodoulou, sent to me by the Royal College of Music following rehearsals and performance of the festival launch and that unforgettable Prokofiev Six.

We talked about the dangers of critical jumping to quick conclusions. VJ's been disappointed by reception of last season's most daring ventures, which I missed, but determined to go on with his extraordinary programming and heartened by the crowd. Best of all, I'd say, is that first on their feet at the end of the Schnittke were the teenagers and twentysomethings. A new climate is afoot; with animateurs like Jurowski, Petrenko, Nelsons, Dudamel, Salonen, Ticciati and Nezet-Seguin around, the change of attitude in the younger generation advances in joyous leaps and bounds. It was high time.

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