Monday, 29 April 2013

LSO/Gardiner (Barbican); LPO/Jurowski (RFH)

Both of these concerts featured works from the same concentrated chronological span: John Eliot Gardiner celebrated his 70th birthday at the Barbican  on Thursday conducting Stravinsky's Apollo (1928, rev 1947) and Oedipus Rex (1927); on Saturday Vladimir Jurowski presented an even more taxing programme with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall, consisting of Webern's Variations Op. 30 (1940), Berg's Lulu Suite (1934), Bartok's Music for String Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Martinu's Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani (1939). (Please excuse me, incidentally, for the lack of accents: I haven't worked out how to do these without the size, font or background colour of my text getting messed up--which is what happens when I cut and paste from anything.)

Between them they presented a fascinating prospectus of what sort of music was being produced within a space of less than 15 years, and while the LPO's concert was part of the Southbank Centre's year-long Rest is Noise festival, the LSO's concert could just as easily have been part of it too. Both concerts had the sort of conviction and quality that makes one despair that such marketing behemoths are necessary, and, although my attendance at the Southbank's festival has been unforgivably sporadic thus far--to say the least--I couldn't help thinking that this LPO concert must have been one of the best in the series. First, the programme contained three truly great works, plus one--the Martinu--that seemed to show that composer at his best. Second, Jurowski gave a brief but passionate and persuasive talk. He said the programme was among the most challenging for him to perform, introduced the four works and offered advice, in particular, on how the uninitiated should listen to the Webern: along the lines of don't try and analyse, just listen.

Jurowski's conducting seemed to do the analysis for us, and the piece came across with impressive clarity and precision, with the LPO's players on outstanding form for their Principal Conductor (a more nuanced comparative view, from Boulezian, can be read here). The Lulu-Suite was outstanding, too, the orchestral playing rich and febrile, the contributions from the brilliant Barbara Hannigan--who recent sang the whole of Berg's opera in Brussels--lyrically free and exciting and extreme. Her  wandering on to the platform in stilettos, silk dress and coat, languidly killing time before taking her position by the podium, was a nicely effective touch. Jurowski had announced a change in the order in the programme, so that the Bartok now preceded the Martinu, suggesting that despite the former's masterpiece status, the latter should still be able to hold its own. Some who left after the first clearly didn't share his view, but the Czech composer's work was performed with terrific commitment and elan by the LPO strings, joined by the excellent pianist Catherine Edwards. There was impressive corporate virtuosity in the Bartok, too, in a performance that buzzed with energy and drive.

The controlled, coolly elegant writing of Stravinsky's Apollo(n Musagète) had shown the LSO strings on no less virtuosic form a couple of days earlier, with the just-turned-70 Gardiner showing a decent amount of balletic flair on the podium himself. It's a lovely piece, and was played with a great deal of charm and flexibility. It was blown out of the water by the performance of Oedipus Rex, though, in a cleverly sort-of-staged performance which had the Monteverdi Choir's men in face paint and the excellent soloists--Jennifer Johnston (Jocasta), Stuart Skelton (Oedipus), Gidon Saks (Creon)--also strikingly made-up, popping up in spotlights stage right or centre. Fanny Ardant was as classy as one would expect as the narrator, and Alexander Ashworth and David Shipley stepped forward from the chorus to make highly impressive contributions as as the Messanger and Tiresias--with singers such as these in its ranks, it is no wonder that Gardiner's choir made such an impact. In fact, the whole thing was fiercely exciting and involving, and rarely have I thought the Barbican's bright acoustic was more suitable, emphasizing each sharp edge (one's tempted to to reach for the sculptural, granitic metaphors) of Stravinsky's score. There wasn't much room for subtleties, but that was fine by me. (It was broadcast on Radio 3, incidentally, and there's a couple more days to listen to it here

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