Tonight's concert was a prime example of the solid programming of Southbank Centre's The Rest is Noise festival. The concert, titled "Music from Dark Times", included pieces by Webern, Berg, Bartók and Martinů, written between 1934 and 1941, which were indeed dark times for all these composers. In Vladimir Jurowski's introduction, the conductor explained that this was one the most challenging evenings of the year for him and the orchestra. He talked passionately about the pieces, and in particular the Webern, whose Variations for Orchestrahe compared to Goethe's theory of plants: many things change, but the essence remains the same.
Anton Webern's Variations for Orchestra is the last piece of his own music the composer ever saw performed. It is a short, seven-minute piece, and relies on perfect timing from the musicians. The London Philharmonic Orchestra played it almost faultlessly, and with a great sense of balance and subtlety. Jurowski kept on top of the orchestra, and his obvious passion for the piece lead to a performance that at the very least makes you wonder why this piece is not performed more often. The quality of Webern's music is often assessed by looking at the theories behind it, at the way in which he used twelve-tone technique, but it is when you listen and not think about the Variations for Orchestra that the beauty and value of the piece really come forward.
For Alban Berg's Lulu Suite the orchestra were joined by world-renowned soprano Barbara Hannigan, who has often talked about her love for Lulu. She appeared on stage as the orchestra started "Ostinato", leaning against a wall in a coat and skimpy nightdress, making it clear that even in a concert performance, Hannigan takes the role of Lulu seriously. She clearly did not distract the orchestra, whose intense and assertive performance did Berg's turbulent score justice. Hannigan's performance of "Lulu's Lied" was stunning, and the final words she sang in the "Adagio", as Lulu's lover Countess Geschwitz, were incredibly moving, the perfect accompaniment to the LPO's performance.
Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste required quite a different set-up; with the strings of the orchestra seated around the percussion, piano and celeste, the orchestra was divided in two halves. There is hardly a moment of unison, but the two sections always connect, sometimes in a playful manner, sometimes almost as a struggle, and here always expertly lead by Jurowski. Melodically it is a typical Bartók piece, with use of folk-like tunes and angular melodies, and never a moment of stillness. Timing is of the essence, and as in Webern's Variations for Orchestra, the LPO were solid and pianist Catherine Edwards was particularly impressive, both in this piece and the following Martinů.
In his introductory talk Jurowski had referred to the Martinů Double Concerto as emotionally straightforward and said that Bartók's piece was much more ambiguous. The LPO's performance seemed to be in sync with this opinion, as the performance of Bartók did not seem as emotionally laden as that of the other pieces played tonight, but I am not sure if that is entirely due to the nature of the music or if the orchestra lacked some of the dedication that they did provide the other pieces.
This performance of Martinů's Double Concerto made sure that the concert ended on a high note. Not emotionally, as the "dark times" alluded to in the title really are most clearly audible in this piece, but musically. While it has almost the same set-up as Bartók's piece, Martinu's use of the two different string sections is rather different. The slow second movement illustrated this most clearly, as the beginning of the movement is played almost entirely in unison, creating an atmosphere that was both a delicate and dramatic effect, completely overwhelming the listener. The intensity of the piece did, as Jurowski had suggested, make it a perfect ending to the evening.
Some of the concerts at The Rest is Noise contain well-loved and often-played pieces, but it is concerts like this one where the festival's importance really lies. These four outstanding pieces of music are not heard as often as they should be (perhaps with the expection of the Bartók), but if all the performances are as impressive as the LPO's, I would not be surprised to see this change.
Berg's 'Lulu', an operatic masterpiece of human self-destruction, lends its most surging themes to its namesake Suite for soprano and orchestra, which perfectly exposes the composer's marrying of Serialist technique to unfailing melodic gift.
Bartok's mysteriously scored creation has the feeling of music from another world - at once utterly foreign and beguilingly beautiful.
As Martinu saw his native Czechoslovakia threatened in 1938, he created a near-violent expression of courage - in his own words, 'a current of notes that never ceases for an instant, and by a melody that passionately claims the right to freedom.'
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Vladimir Jurowski © Roman Gontcharov