thu 20/06/2024

Mørk, Padmore, LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Mørk, Padmore, LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

Mørk, Padmore, LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

Brilliantly programmed quartet of contrasting Britten works spotlights instrumental genius

The final scene of 'The Prince of the Pagodas' in 1956, with designs by John PiperRoger Wood/ROH

Interviewed live just before his Proms performance of Britten’s Serenade, Ben Johnson was asked the usual question as to whether the composer wrote especially well for the tenor voice. “He writes amazingly for every instrument,” came the reply. If we needed a single-programme testament to that special genius, this all-Britten celebration from Vladimir Jurowski and his London Philharmonic Orchestra was it.

In addition to the two billed soloists, there were at least a dozen from within the orchestra who proved the point. And what sounds, what textures, whether Britten was writing light or dark, whether or not his actual thematic inspiration was running at full pelt.

In the music selected here, it mostly was, since the numbers we heard from The Prince of the Pagodas steered clear of whole stretches in the full-length ballet score where Britten’s imagination seems to have deserted him. It was, as usual with this conductor, a generous and unorthodox programme, a daring quartet of works from the last two decades of a fertile composing life. None of them would probably be in the standard list of top ten best-loved Britten (though two, the Nocturne and the Cello Symphony, are close to the top of mine).

There are supernatural humour and lightness in the sleepscape of Nocturne Jurowski applied his whiplash, quick-change effect to the ballet suite  – his own selection, I’m guessing, lacking only the gamelan effects of Pagoda Land and minimizing the pall of all those scales and arpeggios in the apotheosis. The court gavotte, deliciously transformed Tchaikovsky-style from the adjoining march, bounced so swiftly that you wondered if the players could manage the rapid speed-up at the end (they did). Strings cascaded with precise brilliance, dazzling in the Stravinsky-Apollo style characterization of haughty villainness Belle Épine and with violins in the spotlight for “Hunt the Squirrel” from Britten’s last orchestral work, the Suite on English Folk Songs of 1974.

Here the fun withered at the end of the first half. Sue Böhling stood apart for the poignant cor anglais solo in the suite's concluding number, “Lord Melbourne”, steering clear of English pastoral music’s cowpats with its freedom, its disturbing build and the sudden shock of a doubling with muted trumpet (who else but Britten would have thought of that combination?) It linked well with the even more desolate solo in the sixth (Wilfred Owen) setting of the composer’s most masterly poetry-anthology, the Nocturne: coming as it does after the timpani-ridden setting of Wordsworth’s night fears from The Prelude, it shows that in 1958 Britten knew the Shostakovich of the terror-stricken Eighth Symphony.

Rostropovich and Britten in 1963But there are supernatural humour and lightness in the sleepscape here too, with horn doing the eerie night animal noises of Middleton’s “Midnight Bell”, flute and clarinet skipping and burbling round Keats’s image-rich ode to sleep. Invidious to single out any one of the seven obbligato soloists:all were superlatively subtle and so, I guess, was tenor Mark Padmore, though from my seat at the right side of the stalls he was masked by Jurowski and the words couldn’t often be heard (quite the opposite effect of his Billy Budd Captain Vere at the Proms).

Rather quiet, too, from that perspective - and given such personal circumstances I won't withhold the fifth star - was cellist Truls Mørk, falling short at first of the declamatory urgency of Mstislav Rostropovich for whom Britten (pictured above with the cellist after a Moscow performance) wrote the magnificently austere Cello Symphony. But in troubled self-communings and fine tuning to the orchestral colleagues who share equal honours, as the title of the work suggests, Mørk was matchless. It was the crowning glory of Jurowski’s  programme to place this masterpiece last, not in the usual concerto slot; its long-term symphonic journey from growling low timbres and fragmentary despair to utterly convincing optimism, the “far-shining sail" on the "infinite sea" glimpsed by Vere at the end of Billy Budd, meant that nothing else could follow.

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