Bearing the title “Interrupted Stories”, the last performance in the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2020 Vision series was supposed to culminate with Sir James MacMillan’s new Christmas Oratorio. When the latter’s world premiere was postponed due to Covid-related restrictions, another MacMillan opus was selected as a replacement. Composed in 1991, his twenty-minutes-long Sinfonietta starts from silence with the uncommon sound of a soprano saxophone (Malcolm Robertson) and returns to calm at the end with a unison for strings. The middle is quite frenetic with brass explosions and occasional weird, march-like segments. Vladimir Jurowski, in his last season as LPO’s principal conductor, led the ensemble with his trademark sinuous gestures and determination in moments of both tranquility and effervescence.

Vladimir Jurowski
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

The rest of the works on the programme put together by the LPO – conceived exactly a hundred years apart in the last four centuries – could all be characterised as “rarely played”, normally an euphemism for opuses that are more or less forgotten.

First performed during the Carnival in Venice in 1720, Vivaldi’s La verità in cimento (The truth contested) is a high point of his early output. The string ensemble played the opera’s overture with gracefulness, trying to infuse an extra dose of energy and excitement into the rather flat musical landscape.

Louis Spohr’s Symphony no. 2 was written in London a hundred years later and first performed at a concert of the Philharmonic Society. Like most of his significant output, it met with success, a success that lasted for several decades until both critics and public decided that inventiveness is more important than craftsmanship, and this oeuvre pretty much disappeared from concert halls. From the not conventionally slow introduction to the first movement to the feisty coda, Jurowski and his collaborators tried to bring forward Spohr’s special gift for melody and for highlighting the specific timbre of woodwinds. The conductor made no efforts to hide the fact that Spohr’s symphony is more backward than forward looking. Nevertheless, he emphasised several moments of beauty such as the Haydnesque second theme in the lighthearted finale, the rich, trumpet-featuring harmonisation of the melody in the central section of the Larghetto or the alternate enouncement of the theme by winds and strings in the Ländler-like Trio.

Two brief opuses marked the 20th century contribution to the programme. Both Honegger’s Pastorale d’été and Bliss’ Rout are – very appropriately for 1920 – tinged with jazz whiffs. Like MacMillan’s Sinfonietta, Honegger’s opus, inscribed with a quote from Arthur Rimbaud – “J'ai embrassé l'aube d'été (I have embraced the summer dawn)” – is a musical arch, leaning on pillars of quietness. Similar to Spohr’s symphony, it is closer to the music of the past (Debussy and the melodic idiom of the 19th century) than to the ironic noninvolvement preached by members of “Les Six”, the group of French composers Honegger is usually associated with. Starting with a dreamy horn solo (John Ryan) and ending with birdcalls evoked by flute and clarinet, the piece – scored for a small ensemble of strings, single woodwinds, and horn – is characterised by a particularly inventive orchestration that Jurowski clearly underlined.

Mary Bevan
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Featuring the clear-voiced and assured soprano Mary Bevan uttering a Dada-style jumble of made-up words, Arthur Bliss’ Rout is perhaps closer to the musical ideas of “Les Six”. A small chamber ensemble comprised of flute, clarinet, harp, percussion and strings played with panache a score that somehow seemed less dated than others in this performance. Listening to all of them, one must applaud Vladimir Jurowski’s long-term dedication to drawing attention to potentially unjustly forgotten opuses.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream on Marquee TV