sat 03/12/2016

Bell, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Bell, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

Bell, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

Death and transfiguration from Grisey and Mahler in the LPO's latest only-connect programme

Allison Bell: charismatic soprano in hypnotic song-cycle by GriseyFelipe Pagani

Why so much of Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO on theartsdesk, you may ask, when other concerts pass unremarked? The answer is simple: quite apart from the immaculate preparation and the most elegant conducting style in the business, Jurowski programmes with an imagination matched by none of London’s other principal conductors – unless you like lots of Szymanowski served up by Gergiev with lumpy Brahms – and, more important, always finds connections.

This stunning event was an excellent demonstration of the art, and introduced with typical eloquence by a Jurowski bent on pointing out a healthy apocalypse inherent in our date, 12/12/12. 52-year-old Gérard Grisey collapsed and died of an aneurism in 1998 shortly after completing his meditations on individual and collective annihilation, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four chants for crossing the threshold). Mahler was almost the same age at his death, and had earlier marked the return from a near fatal illness to new life and love by moving from funereal darkness to rampant celebration in his Fifth Symphony.

Gerard GriseySo much for the theory; the proof was in the practice. Grisey’s masterpiece could not have been a more extraordinary contrast with the showier feverishness of the Mahlerian universe. Anyone who chooses poems from the Christian, Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian traditions means serious business. It added up to a spellbinding monodrama for soprano and 15 equally important, mostly low register players, an opera in four acts with interludes. As Jurowski put it, Grisey (pictured) meditates on the texts rather than interpreting them. That extraordinary singer Allison Bell began by honing the syllables of "The death of the angel", a setting of mystic poet Christian Guez Ricord, pulling her intense expressiveness out of the bag with the full phrase "comme un ange" finally assembled at the end. Grisey writes in such a way that the light, high voice required only gets covered by the instruments, appropriately enough, in the third "chant", Erinna of Telos's "death of the voice". But Bell's powers of projection as well as pitch - the quarter tone intervals required seemed compellingly precise - are remarkable. She could probably make poised sense of Ariel's yapping in Ades's The Tempest, and she was born to play Berg's Lulu.

Most important is the soprano's ability to camouflage herself within the instrumental sonorities, which given Grisey's pioneering work in the spectralist school of scientifically defining sound and colour, are always original. The jungle of hidden dangers in the opening sequence, epitomised by the extraordinary refinement Lee Tsarmaklis drew from his tuba, yielded to the hypnotic underpinning of three notes from harp, then cello, then double-bass, in the catalogue of Egyptian sarcophagi inscriptions. The drumming interlude heralding the cataclysm described in the Epic of Gilgamesh sounded as extraordinary as Xenakis at his wildest (and after the mostly furtive sounds that went before it, the loud, dead thud of bass drum - think Mahler's reflection of a New York fireman's funeral in his Tenth Symphony - was enough to make you jump out of your skin). Gilgamesh's final message of hope brands itself on the memory in a last, paradoxical lullaby of awakening bent by more quarter tones. The audience, full of young people courtesy of Deutsche Bank’s BrightSparks aim to provide free tickets, was still and attentive throughout.

The second movement, where Mahler can bully you into numbness, stayed focused and purposeful

After the Grisey, Jurowski seemed intent to cast off half-lights in the Mahler symphony, fresh and novel as any in the LPO's long-term cycle so far. Strings in the funereal procession swayed, almost sashayed, to evade the tyranny of brilliant trumpeter Paul Beniston's uncommonly loud and piercing Angel of Death. The complementary second movement, where Mahler can bully you into numbness with his relentless grim counterpoint, stayed focused and purposeful up to the blinding ray of hope in the great chorale. In the scherzo, Mahler's "world without gravity", Jurowski kept the Viennese lopsided playfulness luridly close to the abyss. Placing the obbligato horn at the front of the stage drew attention to guest - soon, I gather, to be full-time - principal David Pyatt's peerless sense of atmosphere in the two twilight zones, the second transporting us for the first time in the performance to other realms; Vienna and Berlin have not anything to show more fair.

By the same token, the LPO strings may not quite have the inner light of those two unmatchable central European orchestras. But then this Adagietto was not the warm bath the couple in front, slumped like lovers in a suicide pact, seemed to be expecting; Jurowski kept it edgy and questing. The most remarkable string work came in the finale, worked to a degree of incisive brilliance I've never heard surpassed. Jurowski's gambit in placing the second violins to the right paid off in their lacy accompaniment to the return of the Adagietto music, and the ten double basses truly underpinned all that cheerful fugue-ing from their positions at the back to the left. Nor does Jurowski's control mean that like his Berlin counterpart Simon Rattle he can't let his orchestra off the leash; the ending was wild beyond belief. As he pointed out in his introduction, we may have had to face the shadow-world in this boldest of concerts, but we could go out into the festive season more than happy.

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