Vladimir Jurowski, LPO

It was, moreover, a rare pleasure to experience such
bold and coherent programming. The problem, alas, was that performances of
these works — or performance of this ‘work’ — were not always
convincing; it was, perhaps predictably but no less sadly, Beethoven who
suffered most. Two of the other ‘movements’, Schoenberg’s A Survivor
from Warsaw
and Nono’s Julius Fu?ik received excellent
performances. A curate’s egg, then, which was hardly the intention.

The Fidelio Overture opened proceedings. It was hard driven, though to be
fair, I have heard worse. Odder was the strange, almost balletic lightness of
tone, strange until one realised that it arose from a fatal lack of harmonic
grounding. I was put in mind of Esa-Pekka
Salonen’s recent Philharmonia performance of the Fifth Symphony
, which
ended up sounding more like Delibes than Beethoven; it too had inspired
programming, the symphony prefacing Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero,
yet was let down in Beethoven’s case by inferior performance. And so,
Beethoven’s music merely floated along. It was all efficiently despatched by
the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the problem lay in Jurowski’s conception.
Once again, moreover, Jurowski indulged his odd penchant for mixing modern
horns, which, give or take the odd split note, played splendidly, and natural
trumpets, whose rasping certainly did not help matters.

Schoenberg was next up. First came his Ode to Napoleon, given in its version
for narrator, piano, and string orchestra. I have never been especially
convinced by the orchestral version; a string quartet works far better. Sadly,
this performance did nothing to alter that judgement. Part of the problem is
— and was — that the piano does not blend well with the strings and ends up
sounding like a concertante instrument rather than a member of a chamber
ensemble. Despite excellent playing from Catherine Edwards, the effect was
unconvincing. Robert Hayward contributed an excellent rendition of Byron’s
poem, relishing text and subtext alike to chilling effect. Jurowski did not
help matters for at least the first half of the performance. Once again,
harmonic depth was lacking and direction was disturbingly metronomic. There was
little or no sense of the score’s roots in German tradition, not least that
of Beethoven. Having said that, Jurowski’s reading improved considerably. By
the time we reached the words, ‘If still she loves thee, hoard that gem,
‘Tis worth thy vanish’d diadem!’ the summoned ghosts of Romanticism duly
haunted. The stanza, ‘Thou Timour…’ accomplished, perhaps for the first
time with respect to this performance, speed without (the wrong sort of)
brutality. Schoenberg’s furious inverse ode to Napoleon/Hitler ended with
just the right sense of false triumph, the final E-flat cadence — an ironic
echo of the Eroica — falling flat as it must. Sadly, a performance
that really gathered pace and conviction was blighted by some appalling
audience behaviour, not least a French-speaking — yes, literally
‘speaking’ — person in the row in front of me, who flashed around his
Blackberry for most of the time.

A Survivor from Warsaw completed the first half. It suffered even
worse from the Blackberry wielder, who proceeded not only to type messages
throughout the performance, but to chatter to his companion and even to fondle
her. Such a reaction to commemoration of the Holocaust would have been obscene
enough, but he actually seemed turned on not so much by genocide as by his
indifference to it. (I should lay odds that he was a ‘beneficiary’ of
‘corporate hospitality’.) A Survivor survived, just about, but such
behaviour ought to lead to a life-time ban. This work is less garrulous than
the Ode to Napoleon and seemed to inspire Jurowski less fitfully. It received a
more properly modern and focused performance, with less of the agitprop to it.
Richly expressive and rhythmically alert, this was at last a reading that
justified the hopes of the programme. Ghosts of Mahler and of Schoenberg’s
earlier self pervaded work and performance alike. Hayward’s narration was
once again excellent, a case in point the combination of brutality and beauty
— Nazi Êstheticisation of politics brought to mind — in Schoenberg’s
setting of the Feldwebel’s words. The horrific race, quickly a stampede, into
the chamber was such even before the word ‘stampede’. Militancy, inspired
and terrifying, of the male chorus and its hymn, ‘Sh’ma Yisroel’ brought
echoes of Bach as well as Beethoven, a spirited rejoinder to the vile
‘Aryanisation’ of German culture official policy had brought. (Even the
text of Mozart’s Requiem had had to be altered, ‘Te decet hymnus Deus, in
Sion et tibi reddetur votum in Ierusalem,’ rejected in favour of ‘Te decet
hymnus Deus, in coelis et tibi reddetur votum hic in terra,’ in Bruno
Kittel’s celebrated or notorious 1941 recording.)

The British premiere of Nono’s 1951 Julius Fu?ik opened the
second half, wisely instructed to be performed without a break. (Not that that
stopped some applauding the end of the first movement of the Beethoven…)
Incomplete, it was first performed — posthumously — at the 2006 Munich
Biennale (not almost sixty years ago, as Jurowski claimed, perhaps thinking of
composition) and offers another of Nono’s tributes to the memory of the Czech
communist and literary critic, hanged following captivity in Berlin in 1943 and
an official hero for socialist Czechoslovakia. Fu?ik’s words — and
‘Voice’ — are employed in Intolleranza 1960 (dedicated to
Schoenberg), and Nono’s Composizione per Orchestra no.1, also from
1951, offered another as-yet-secret memorial — programme music hardly the
thing for Darmstadt — to Fu?ik. It was a pity we could not hear the
Composizione as well, but perhaps that is just being greedy or plain
unreasonable. A strange mini-biography awaited us on the screen as we returned
from the interval. I hope that the problematic sentence was a matter of
translation — though surely that could have been attended to’ since
‘sadly,’ as in ‘Sadly, the Nazis executed him in 1943,’ really is not
the mot juste. The house lights went down so as to focus attention
upon the stage and the searchlit interrogation of Fu?ik. (Still worse now,
Blackberry man resumed its activities, lighting up a good part of the stalls
with his screen and flashing red light.)

Jurowski captured to a tee the pointillistic post-Webern violence of
Nono’s opening, likewise its lyricism that marks the composer’s music even
at this stage as quite different from that of Stockhausen. The score blossomed
— both in work and performance — into something perhaps surprisingly
Schoenbergian, but then Nono never shared Boulez’s resolve to parricide,
despite posthumous elevation as Schoenberg’s son-in-law. (It is rather
misleading, by the way, to speak of him at this stage in that light, since he
had yet to meet Schoenberg’s daughter, Nuria, let alone to marry her. Their
meeting had to wait until the 1953 premiere of Moses und Aron.) Obar
Ebrahim and Malcolm Sinclair offered excellent performances. This excellent
account, antiphonal drumming and all, exuded brutality, psychoticism, and yet
inviting, spellbinding beauty — not unlike the interrogation in
Intolleranza. It was somehow not unlike a Bach cantata, though
Fu?ik’s last words — ‘Believe me, this has taken nothing, absolutely
nothing, from the joy that is in me and that heralds itself each day with some
Beethoven theme or other … — inevitably brought one’s focus, insofar as
it was not distracted by Blackberry antics, towards another great predecessor.
Nor was Schoenberg forgotten. I could not help but think of Helmut
Lachenmann’s transcription of a 1960 lecture Nono gave on A Survivor from
Warsaw at Darmstadt. It was, Nono, said (my translation):

… the musical-Êsthetic manifesto of our era. What Jean-Paul Sartre says
in his essay, What is Literature?, about the problem ‘why
write?’, is witnessed in utterly authentic fashion in Schoenberg’s
creative necessity:

‘And if I am presented with this world and its injustices, then I should
not look at it coldly, but … with indignation, that I might expose it and
create it in its nature as injustice and abuse. …’

* * *

And further, should someone refuse to recognise Schoenberg’s [here Nono
makes reference to a previous quotation from Arnold Schmitz on Bach]
docere and movere, above all in his A Survivor from
, he should know that the words which the nineteen-year-old
student, Giacomo Levi, wrote in his last letter before execution by the
Fascists in Modena in 1942, are also addressed to him: ‘Do not say that you
no longer wish to know anything about it. Consider this, that all that has
happened is because you no longer wished to know anything more about

Finally, then, the Fifth Symphony. The odd-numbered movements fared better
than the even ones, but this was not, alas, a performance to justify the hopes
placed in it. (Most infuriating or even obscene of all was Blackberry man
sitting back to ‘enjoy’ what he presumably thought of as the ‘real’
music. He managed to wait until the first movement coda before checking for
messages again.) Jurowski took the first movement fast but not entirely
unreasonably so. If hardly the last word in profundity, then at least there was
a much stronger sense of line than there had been in the overture. One had to
put up with those dreadful rasping trumpets though. Beethoven’s extraordinary
concision came through, if not the necessary weight of tone and message. It was
good to have the opening of the slow movement greeted by a mobile telephone,
but in truth, there was little of consequence to be disrupted here. Predictably
swift, this is doubtless what passes for a Beethoven slow movement, even one
marked “Andante can moto”, in the fashionable circles of an age seemingly
incapable, a few Barenboim-like exceptions aside, of responding to the
symphonic Beethoven. It sounded more like an intermezzo with unpleasant and
arbitrary brass interventions than the unfolding of an inevitable musical
narrative. The LPO very much seemed to be going through the motions — and I
could not entirely blame them. It was genuinely sad that, following the two
previous performances, this music should go for so little, but at least
Jurowski’s tempo ensured that it was over relatively quickly.

Rather to my surprise, the scherzo fared better. It was full of menace, not
least since melody, harmony, and rhythm now once again seemed to be related to
one another. The counterpoint of the trio was irrepressible as well as clear,
the ghostliness of the scherzo’s reprise not merely colourful but also
chilling. Alas, the opening of the finale was marred by the plodding
parade-ground sound of natural trumpets. The horns, by contrast, sounded
glorious. It was full of incidental ‘moments’ — not quite in the
Stockhausen sense: that might have been interesting… — yet the great sweep
of Beethoven’s imagination seemed quite to elude Jurowski. This performance
remained stubbornly earthbound, for all its superficial highlighting in
apparent attempts to generate ‘excitement’. The drama has to come within;
it cannot be appliquÈ. A message for our time indeed. Whilst I was greatly
moved by A Survivor and by Julius Fu?ik, Beethoven — and
this is less sad than tragic — elicited no such reaction. Jurowski’s
programming was estimable, but it needed a Gielen or a Barenboim — or,
imagine! a Klemperer or a Furtw‰ngler — to carry it off.

Mark Berry

Performers and Production Information

Robert Hayward (narrator); Omar Ebrahim (Fu?ik); Malcom Sinclair (Voice in
Julius Fu?ik). Annabel Arden (director); John B. Read (lighting); Pieter Hugo
(protographer); Annalisa Terranova (video). Gentlemen of the London
Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Neville Creed); London Philharmonic
Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Wednesday
28 November 2012.

image_description=Julius Fu?ik
product_title=Ludwig van Beethoven, Overture: Fidelio, op.72c; Arnold Schoenberg, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, op.41; Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw, op.46; Luigi Nono, Julius Fu?ik (United Kingdom premiere); Beethoven, Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Julius Fu?ik