thu 18/09/2014

Leiferkus, LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Leiferkus, LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

A voyage around Musorgsky: from the raw original to more recent composers' homages

Vladimir Jurowski: another 'only connect' programme centred around MusorgskyChris Christodoulou

How odd that Musorgsky, a composer sanctified beyond his very individual deserts for making social statements in his art, should be feted by an orchestra, or rather an orchestral management, which says music and politics don't mix. They clearly have in recent events which led to the suspension of four London Philharmonic players, but you wouldn't have known it either from an audience riveted into silence - in-house protests fortunately failed to materialise - or from no hint of a leaflet outside the hall (not so good; don't those players have any colleagues willing to advertise their plight?).

At any rate, total engagement of a non-political nature was what held Vladimir Jurowski's latest "only connect" programme together as it ranged from that most unorthodox of Russians to two contemporary figures inspired by him - one orchestrating to serve the master, the other much more for himself, both also heard as their thorny, embattled selves.

We do need to get beyond the circumstances first, and it's sad that in practical terms there's no sign of that happening as I write. It struck me as unhelpful to meet blacklisting for a boycott with another boycott, but the question I'd already asked the management still needs answering. It was right of the LPO to caution with maximum publicity the four players who put their signatures to a newspaper letter protesting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's visit to the Proms - if indeed they added the orchestra's name to their own (who actually did this remains unclear). It was emphatically wrong to suspend them first for nine months and then for six (some concession). Until clemency is extended and the ban rescinded, the LPO's reputation will suffer as much as the exiled players.

All process and atmosphere, Zimmermann's shorter mood pieces shouldn't work so well, but like Ligeti's, they're mesmerising

Yet of this there was not so much as a murmur last night. Which was a relief as far as the extreme concentration of the music-making went. Musorgsky in his wild, undisciplined early maturity came first with a thrash through the original Night on a Bare Mountain (strictly we ought to call it by that initial name, St John's Night on the Bare Mountain). Rimsky-Korsakov, for once, was right in shoehorning the cloven hooves of a later version into his much more organic showpiece. Though Jurowski made the orchestra burn with focused fire from the very first, lurid notes, even he couldn't persuade us that Musorgsky's stop-start technique is all intuitive genius.

Still, it's fascinating to hear echoes of the dainty flickers around Wagner's dallying minstrel Tannhäuser in Venusberg - an influence missing from the familiar arrangement - and the rampaging of the supernatural whole-tone scale just when our maverick composer seems to have given up on finding a place to stop.

Mental drift would be hard for even the most determined listener to stave off both here and in the most obvious of the evening's homages, the world premiere of Alexander Raskatov's A White Night's Dream. We needed to hear what Raskatov is capable of beyond the demands of edgy music-theatre (and I seem to have been one of the few who came to admire his score for the Bulgakov opera A Dog's Heart at English National Opera last season). Stripped of any perceptible illustrative quality, what we get is the same collage of extreme-frequency sounds, with some extra-terrestrial writing for trombones, frozen as a snapshot of portentous, toppling carnival floats.

Raskatov's hothouse eclecticism is the opposite of the hypnotic concentration in Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Stille und Umkehr (Silence and Return). A side-drum sporadically taps out a rhythm - Schubert? Blues? - against shifting colours on a single note. All process and atmosphere, Zimmermann's shorter mood pieces shouldn't work so well, but like Ligeti's, they're mesmerising, especially when the rhythms and the colours meet as perfectly as they did in Jurowski's supremely well-controlled performance.

Sergei LeiferkusThe rest was unique programme-building, but much less of the essence. In short, Zimmermann effaces every aspect of his own personality except for the fastidious textures in his arrangements of two evocative but small-beer Musorgsky piano pieces, while Raskatov says "here I am" at length when he dares to follow Shostakovich in orchestrating the Songs and Dances of Death. It's endemic of his approach that you stop watching and listening to even as charismatic a baritone - I'm always tempted to say "bass baritone" - as Sergei Leiferkus (pictured right) and fixate instead on the gluey but often outlandish instrumental linings.

Perverse as Raskatov may be to give Musorgsky's opening meanderings to celesta and harpsichord, it was hard not to admire the originality of brass glissandi following the voice as Death lullabies the sick child to eternal rest in the first song, or the electric guitars that join the serenade of the macabre oily lover, another of Raskatov's favourite homages to early Schnittke.

But even stalwart veteran Leiferkus - on good form now after an apparent decline - couldn't be heard as Death the Field Marshal, smothered by oddly co-ordinated orchestral cohorts. Did the arranger think of giving his soloist a microphone? And those endless interludes of pure Raskatov with one arch homage to the coronation bells of Boris Godunov: now what was all that about? Shostakovich wanted his death-dirge Fifteenth Quartet played "so that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience start leaving the hall from sheer boredom" - but he meant that in a good way, as Raskatov with his rambling interventions seemingly does not.

So thanks, Jurowski, for another inimitable programme that few other conductors could get away with, but next, please.

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