sun 13/06/2021

Schnittke Festival finale, Jurowski, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

Schnittke Festival finale, Jurowski, RFH

Schnittke Festival finale, Jurowski, RFH

Haydn's passion brings consolation to a thorny late 20th-century concerto

Eliot's "time future contained in time past" has been conductor Vladimir Jurowski's unofficial motto throughout a festival which has had to take itself very seriously, and managed miraculously to carry a surprisingly large, loyal audience of all ages and persuasions along with it. Such stringent conditions could hardly be otherwise given the focal point of an uncompromising genius.

Alfred Schnittke started out by making the whole of musical history his own frenetic stamping ground, earnest in jest and deadly serious even at his most sarcastic. He was no different from countless composers before him in finding meaning through a dialogue with the past. It was with no sense of anticlimax that Jurowski engaged that past by reaching back two centuries past Schnittke to round off his festival yesterday and to bring us full circle to the eternal present.

So the voyage of rediscovery which had begun at the Royal College of Music just under two weeks ago with a raucous quotation of Beethoven's Fifth ended last night with London Philharmonic forces vividly rendering an earthquake by Haydn. By turning back to one of Schnittke's most radical musical ancestors,  and rooting this Russian composer of German-Jewish parentage in the central European tradition as he has throughout the festival, Jurowski managed to give the religious passion of Alfred Schnittke's troubled last years a well-tempered requiem from another master.

We certainly needed the consolation after one of the toughest works in Schnittke's vast and various output, the Second Cello Concerto of 1990. Unlike the first, completed five years earlier in the wake of the first massive stroke which nearly killed him, it seems until the very final seconds to forbid even the slightest consolation of promised eternity. There are only dissonance, density and conflict in the first four movements; they make little sense and offer no obvious attractions for the listener if you hear the concerto cold. White-hot and steely, though, was how Jurowski and his festival collaborator Alexander Ivashkin presented it from the start. Ivashkin, a close colleague of the dedicatee Mstislav Rostropovich, managed to emulate something of his great fellow cellist's intensity and perhaps an even greater sense of line and purpose, assisted no doubt by yet another performance of a contemporary work in which Jurowski knew exactly what he was doing, persuading a tense but unstinting London Philharmonic Orchestra to follow suit.

It's a visual piece: you have to see the soloist struggling for his life against a pitiless, mocking ensemble. Seeming respite provided by another of those brass chorales in which Schnittke usually seeks consolation, this time adapted from his harrowing music to Elem Klimov's film The Agony, soon goes underground in the passacaglia finale. Ivashkin's eloquent programme notes define his greatest challenge in the last section, "where the soloist, playing fortissimo in a very high register, is completely inaudible and practically 'killed' by the massive, brutal orchestra." Grinding into the depths, the cellist does indeed seem to die, but rises again to some kind of music of the spheres in the very last bars. Schnittke had, as Ivashkin adds, "three times been pronounced clinically dead and brought back to life after spending time in the next world." If the musical image of that next world is mostly harsh to our ears as Schnittke presents it in his uncompromising late style, does that make it any less valid?

Haydn's Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross are best known in the intimate meditations of string quartet. Until recently, few conductors have investigated the austere beauties and sudden moments of disorienting anguish in the composer's 1795 version for voices and orchestra. The unaccompanied choral announcements of the "words" according to the Gospels pierce the soul in their simplicity; the orchestra begins more soberly before Haydn personalises the portrait of Christ's weeping mother by the cross, unleashes a lacerating wind-only introduction to the fifth "word" and follows the cry of "Es ist vollbracht" ("It is finished") with a dramatic hovering between a desperate attempt to articulate a vision of peace and a rhythmic, relentless essay on the cruelty of man.

He also matches instrumental strokes of genius with spare but touching gestures for the four soloists. Lisa Milne was the dedicated image of stoic grief; Ruxandra Donose and Andrew Kennedy had only to join the two natural horns to underline the word "Geist" as Christ declares: "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit", to make stones weep. We thought we had reached the perfect haven as baritone Christopher Maltman summoned up bass resonance to have the last word. But no: an earthquake rips it all apart. Jurowski suddenly let his inward and sensitively phrasing London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir give focused vent. Schnittke would have loved this discreetly moving work with its unresolved final crisis as much as any of the other great masterpieces to which he has, by and large, proved equal in this festival. Many of us will still be talking about it in years to come.


Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters