The Eternal Flame: Debussy, Lindberg, Stravinsky and Jan·?ek – London Philharmonic, Vladimir Jurowski

When I interviewed Lindberg back in 2001, just before the Related Rocks festival devoted to his music at the Southbank
Centre, he explained how if you wanted to compose for the voice you had to
solve the problem of melody – and that was something he found difficult to
do. It’s probably true to say in Triumf att finnas till… that
Lindberg has now resolved the issues he had with writing for the voice,
though he has had to abandon much of his earlier style to achieve that. The
composer who wrote Kraft in 1985, with its rhythmic punch and
rough sonorities, or even works like Aura (1993-4) and Engine (1996) which were works of friction and owed at least
something to the kaleidoscopic sound world of Berio or Stravinsky, has now
become unmistakably Sibelian – the connectivity between Triumf and Kullervo feels as if it has been fully embraced.

I think if Sˆdergran’s text is specifically an affirmation of the human
will to triumph over slaughter, a more existential meditation on life
rather than death, then Lindberg’s score sometimes tries to reflect the
opposite. Although the work is written in seven stanzas, there is no
discernible break between them. Lindberg’s writing for percussion is
sustained throughout the work – and if it sounds like shell-fire, the
dynamics adjusted to reflect distance and space, this is part of the
effect. Your ears adjust to the muffling, just as they do to the
penetrating explosions. It often feels like a rather bleak score;
tenebrous, and rather like an instrumental requiem. My guest for this
concert found it “somnambulant” (and I don’t believe he was alone in this

Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra played it well –
though it ended up being considerably longer than the advertised playing
time. For some, I can imagine Lindberg’s thematic material not surviving
the length of time it took Jurowski to get through the music; for others,
the score is powerful enough to suggest the apocalypse of war. I think the
presumption that every syllable of Sˆdergran’s text was meant to be heard
was somewhat undermined by the occluded phrasing of the London Philharmonic
Choir. I found much of it rather unintelligible.

Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles has no particular connection to the
Armistice, though it is a ritual for the dead if not specifically relating
to any one period of time. Radical to the last, Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles (virtually his last completed score from
1965-66) is not in the remotest liturgical, though its fusion of
excoriating catharsis, skeletal writing and latent power is more than equal
to the terrors of the First World War. Perhaps the most obviously cinematic
of the works on the programme – the very opening sounds like gunfire – this
is a piece that in a great performance can send shivers through the spine
as it creates tension and dread through its terrifying climaxes. For such a
compact work it amplifies astonishing force and mourning.

Jurowski and the London Philharmonic gave a very taut performance of it –
pungent enough to yield much of the work’s fury and ritualism. The Dies irae had chorus and brass in almost perfect synchronicity,
rich and resonant, and this was well contrasted with the piano and strings,
almost strained to breaking by a feeling of tremulousness. Maxim
Mikhailov’s bass in the Tuba mirum never felt on the verge of the
collapse as I’ve sometimes felt in a few performances of this work – and it
was idiomatically sung, with a beautifully phrased final note that is never
easy to manage. Angharad Lyddon’s Lacrimosa wasn’t in perfect
balance to the Tuba mirum, perhaps less divine than the writing

Jan·?ek often feels as if he has been overlooked as a composer in the
United Kingdom. Although Jan·?ek’s The Eternal Gospel had been
composed just before the outbreak of the Great War, it was subsequently
revised after its premiere in Prague in February 1917. The text, although
inspired by events centuries before that of Edith Sˆdergran, does share a
vision with her that is less bleak – even though by the time Jan·?ek
revised the score at the height of the war Jaroslav Vrchlick˝’s 1891
‘legend’ had become completely unrecognisable. The score itself is
magnificent, and is oddly reverential and deeply spiritual coming from the
pen of a deeply agnostic composer.

This was in many respects a stand-out performance from the London
Philharmonic Orchestra. Particularly notable were the detailed and
exquisite violin solos of the orchestra’s leader, Pieter Schoeman; composed
to represent the angel and his gospel of love they were meticulous and
perfectly tuned. Such was the clarity of the string playing in this
performance, that even when the rest of the violin desks were playing, and
no matter what the dynamic range, the different bar lines were absolutely
audible. But this is also a score that surges with huge waves of sound –
the opening movement rises inexorably and you never quite feel it relents.
Jan·?ek vividly described this music as representing “open arms longing to
embrace the whole world” something which Jurowski’s conducting achieved by
never scaling back on the dramatic impact.

Vsevolod Grivnov, singing Joachim of Fiore, seemed a little hesitant at
first but had become mercurial and stentorian by his final epilogue. Andrea
Dankov·, singing as the Angel, actually looked rather sinister; the way she
glowered into the audience was, frankly, a little unsettling. But what a
voice! I found her singing absolutely compelling. It’s certainly arguable
this a soprano which is more resonant than most, has much darker tones, and
it was distinctly less ethereal than the magical lines floated by the
violin, but the contrast was magical. The London Philharmonic Choir gave
their best performance of the evening; the only thing that disappointed was
the Festival Hall organ which didn’t really register.

The inclusion of Debussy’s Berceuse hÈroÔque, which had opened the
concert, was the slightest of beginnings, though shares with the last work
on the programme, The Eternal Gospel, the year 1914. Debussy’s
memorial to Belgian forces resisting the German army at the outbreak of the
war, it seems to pour into its five-minute duration a lot of elegy, but not
much depth. Jurowski managed to make it sound much less like Debussy, and
much longer than it needed to.

As with other concerts in this short, but largely compelling, season based
on ‘Stravinsky’s Journey’ microphones were present.

Marc Bridle

Andrea Dankov· (soprano), Angharad Lyddon (mezzo-soprano), Vsevolod Grivnov (bass), Maxim Mikhailov (bass); Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Royal Festival Hall, London 10th November 2018.

product_title=The Eternal Flame Debussy, Lindberg, Stravinsky and Jan·?ek – London Philharmonic, Vladimir Jurowski at the Royal Festival Hall
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id= Above: Andrea Dankov·