More than a sum of parts : Jurowski, Berg, Denisov, Shostakovich

Vladimir Jurowski, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, London Philharmonic Orchestra,  photo : Sven Lorenz, Essen


Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Patricia Kopatchinskaja presented Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto.  Kopatchinskaja, Jurowski and the LPO recorded Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no 2 nearly four years ago, and the disc is a best seller, for good reason. Sine Berg’s Violin Concerto is perhaps even more popular, the prospect of  hearing it with Kopatchinskaya, Jurowski and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall was hard to resist. Hopefully, it will be released at some stage. In the meantime, listen to the repeat broadcast on BBC Radio 3

But this concert was also memorable because it connected Berg’s Violin Concerto with Edison Denisov’s Symphony no 2 and Shostakovich’s Symphony no 15. Jurowski has a genius for devising programmes that are greater even than the sum of their parts.  Anyone can put a programme together; very few can do so on this level.  Please read my review of  Jurowski’s Kancheli, Martinů and Ralph Vaughan Williams concert.  This evening’s inspired combination drew out the  more esoteric levels from all three pieces, absolutely justifying  the theme “Belief and Beyond Belief”. Although so much about South Bank marketing is gimmick, Jurowski’s “Belief and Beyond”  is genuinely well thought through, and adds considerable depth to this year’s series of LPO concerts.  By no means is the term Belief limited to conventional, organized religion.  The concept of Belief  informs the whole way we respond to the human condition, even when we don’t believe in fixed concepts.  Jurowski’s programmes relate to much wider ideas of spiritual and intellectual questioning.  Comic book rigidities go against the grain of creative expression.

Edison Denisov’s Symphony no 2 (1996) is typical Jurowski territory: stretching boundaries. Although Denisov lived under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, he didn’t conform. His perspectives were modern and international. He learned from Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen and eventually was able to move to Paris, where his music was supported by IRCAM.  Denisov’s Symphony, written after he’d moved to Paris, inhabits a world of shimmering almost micro tonality,  sounds blending yet separate, like fluids of different densities flowing together. The voice of a violin emerges from the complex confluences, then  a group of low winds, then a murmur of bassoons and a rumble of percussion.  Swirling figures, very high tessitura, creating forward thrust, broken by staccato cross-currents. Harps and gunfire, I thought.  Savagely angular discords, and the music stops dead. Perhaps literally. Denisov was seriously ill  and passed away six months later.  On the broadcast, Jurowski says there’s a quotation from a bassoon solo in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique,  transposed for double bass.

In programmes as esoteric as Jurowski’s, it’s wise to beware of clichés. Following the obvious idea that Berg’s Violin Concerto represents Manon Gropius who died aged 16, South Bank marketing plays up the “Memory of an Angel” aspects of the piece. But Berg, being Berg, is cryptic, hiding behind surface appearances. Kopatchinskaja reminds us of Albina, Berg’s secret love child, whom he never really knew. Listen to Kopatchinskaja sing the Carpathian (not Austrian) folk song Berg quotes in the piece! Her singing voice is sweet and bird like, which enhances what the piece represents.  When she plays, she defines the part with strong, affirmative poise. The melody is bittersweet, yet undaunted, even when the orchestra storms around her.  Disquieting shapes in the violin part and crashing chords in the orchestra: this isn’t  dewy-eyed sentimentality but something far more profound.  Tonality hovers on the point of breaking and then dissolves, when no more can be said.  The quote “Es ist genug”, is a reference to Bach. Jurowski understands that Berg, even at his most passionate, uses structure with the clarity of a mathematical mind. Puzzles and patterns are integral.  Hence the innate  power of this piece, and this very strong performance.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no 15 starts with exuberance, rushing forward into quirky march with references to Rossini’s William Tell.  Is Shostakovich thinking of military oppression or slyly satirizing music for the movies? Perhaps both, for this symphony is in many ways Shostakovich’s memoir.  Was he a puppet in an insane toy shop, or was he pulling  strings?  The poignant Adagio might be a reflection, but, like Berg, Shostakovich can be enigma.  The single chord progressions suggests isolation, yet the violin takes up the pattern, leading the orchestra in a dance that is deflated by  typical Shostakovich raspberries.  Though the protagonist may be alone, he’s surrounded by other voices.  The orchestration lets many individual instruments have their moment.  This symphony might be an ironic parody of film, unfolding in different scenes, with quotations from Shostakovich’s own work and others.  Thus the dramatic chorale of percussion, complete with crashing gongs.  Yet the underlying melody flows, its way lit by unearthly celesta and xylophone.  A thoughtful performance,  highlighting the many individual sections in this excellent orchestra. Definitely a concert that was more than the sum of its parts.

Original Source: More than a sum of parts : Jurowski, Berg, Denisov, Shostakovich

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