‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio

In the meantime, let us be grateful for every opportunity we have to hear this exquisite, deeply moving music. There were occasional signs of the (slightly) tentative to the London Philharmonic’s performance of the Aldous Huxley Variations under Vladimir Jurowski: perhaps no surprise, given infrequence of performance. There was nothing to disrupt, though: anyone listening, whether for the first or the nth time, would have gained a good sense of what the work was ‘about’ – if only ‘itself’ – and how it ‘went’. Jurowski’s trademark formalism – I am tempted to say ultra-formalism – clarified structure and procedures. Stravinsky’s post-neo-Classical intervallic games, symmetries, inversions, and yes, melodies registered not only with great clarity but also unerringly chosen colour. That involved opposition – for instance, strings versus woodwind – as much as blend or synthesis. If the variation for twelve violins – ‘like a sprinkling of very fine broken glass,’ the composer approvingly reported of the premiere – hinted at Ligeti, even Xenakis, there was never any doubt as to the mind, the ear behind it. As ever, the more Stravinsky changed, the more he stayed himself. And never more so than here, in his ultimate reconciliation with the (Schoenbergian) number twelve.

Threni – to give it its full title, Threni: id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae – has not proved fortunate in performance, whether in quantity or quality. Its 1958 premiere in Paris seems to have been an unmitigated disaster. The recording on Columbia/Sony’s Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky series gives little idea of the work’s expressive riches. I have only heard it once before in concert, in an excellent performance from the BBC Singers, London Sinfonietta, et al., under David Atherton , at the Proms in 2010. Here, Jurowski, the London Philharmonic Choir, the LPO, and some of the soloists did an excellent job; some of the latter’s colleagues proved more variable, a pity in a work of chiselled precision, in which accuracy is far from everything, but remains a necessity to unlock those expressive riches. Again, though, one should not exaggerate: no one would have left without a strong sense of the work and what it might be in performance. Moreover, cantorial tenor Sam Furness, deputising at very short notice, shone perhaps the most brightly of all. Necessity, as so often, proved the mother of invention.

In context, it sounded not unlike a continuation of, or perhaps better a posterior preparation for, the procedures heard and felt in the Variations. There were anticipations, moreover, of the Requiem Canticles , heard only last month as part of this same Stravinsky series from the LPC, LPO, and Jurowski: most obviously, perhaps, in the spoken choral text. That said, Threni may speak with Stravinsky’s unmistakeable voice, but it also, like all of his works, speaks with its own unmistakeable voice. Does the music ‘express’ something beyond itself, that age-old Stravinskian question (itself surely a clever pose, partly intended to prevent us from asking other, more apposite questions)? Here the question, perhaps rightly, remained unanswered, even unanswerable. The cumulative drama, mathematical and yet surely also theological, of the ‘Querimonia’ (first section of ‘De elegia tertia’) registered both directly and at a distance, female choir members and trombones punctuating its sections, each adding a further male soloist, with an almost divine ‘rightness’ that, like a Bach cantata or passion, brooked no dissent. Likewise the relative rejoicing of the opening of the following section, ‘Sensus spei’, Les Noces distilled and serialised, spoke of and through intervals, but yet also of something else, which may or may not have lain beyond. As words and music progressed – I am tempted to say turned – it was as if the spirit of plainsong, its function if not its style, were reinvented before our ears, until darkness fell toward its close. ‘Invocavi nomen tuum, Domine, de lacis novissimo.’ The final ‘De eleigia quinta’ seemed to perform a synthetic role, an impression enhanced by the occasional surprisingly Bergian harmony. A text whose straining to be ‘timeless’ rendered it all the less so had been consulted, read, heard, perhaps even experienced. Had it, though, been understood? That, one felt, was emphatically not the point.

I had forgotten that the 1940 Tango was on the programme. It therefore came as all the more lovely a surprise to hear it at the beginning of the second half, performed neither by piano nor orchestra, but by The Swingles: a winning introduction to Berio’s Sinfonia. Its opening chord, instrumental and vocal, acoustic and electronic, primaeval and modern, announced an entirely different approach to synthesis, all-embracing in a mode I am almost tempted to call ‘popular’ as opposed to ‘aristocratic’. Or such, perhaps, is Berio’s trick – for surely he is just as adept with games and, yes, masks as Stravinsky. It was interesting to note, though, perhaps especially during the first movement, how much I re-heard Berio through lessons learned from Stravinsky (and beyond him, Webern): just, indeed, as I re-heard words from Lévi-Strauss and others through lessons I was learning from Berio (and had from Stravinsky, Webern, et al.) Again, such is surely part of the game, the aesthetic, even the humanistic vision. In the second movement, my ears again doubtless schooled by serial Stravinsky, musical procedures once again sounded very much to the fore. That was also, I suspect, partly a consequence of Jurowski’s aforementioned formalism. Precision in performance ultimately enabled connection in listening.

How to listen to the third movement? So much there is present in our consciousness already; or is it? (Or are its quotations and underlay really so very different from other music(s)?) ‘Keep going’. At any rate, I found myself convinced I was hearing a very different performance from any I had heard before, certainly quite different from that given by Semyon Bychkov at this year’s Proms . ‘Keep going.’ What sounded like a weirdly unidiomatic way with Strauss and Ravel proved compelling in this context. How can anyone make a reminiscence from Wozzeck sound amusing? I genuinely do not know, but Berio – and his performers – did. We kept going – or did we?

The fourth movement emerged ‘as if’ Mahler’s ‘O Röschen rot’ were rewritten before our ears, within our minds – which, surely, it both was and was not. The music retained a trace of that Mahlerian function, whilst (apparently) effortlessly remaining itself. ‘The task of the fifth and last part,’ Berio wrote, ‘is to delete … differences and … develop the latent unity of the preceding fifth parts.’ Again, it both happened and did not. A traditional finale role of a sort was both very much with us, immanent, and yet questioned, facing imminent destruction. Jurowski’s clarity paid dividends here, ironically turning the music around to resemble other Berio works more closely than any other performance I can recall. One final Stravinskian lesson learned, then – after which two highly enjoyable encores: The Swingles singing Piazzolla (Libertango) and the LPO and Jurowski rounding off their year-long Stravinsky survey with Circus Polka: for a Young Elephant.

Mark Berry


Stravinsky: Variations (Aldous Huxley in memoriam); Threni; Tango’; Berio: Sinfonia. Elizabeth Atherton (soprano); Maria Ostroukhova (mezzo-soprano); Sam Furness (tenor); Joel Williams (tenor); Theodore Platt (baritone); Joshua Bloom (bass); The Swingles; London Philharmonic Choir (chorus director: Neville Creed)/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, Saturday 8 December 2018.

image_description=Luciano Berio
product_title=‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Luciano Berio