The evening before the Armistice centenary, meditating World War 1 and what its various catastrophes mean to us now, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski did not shy away from intensity, contradiction and a heavy dose of mystery.

Vladimir Jurowski © Simon Jay Price
Vladimir Jurowski
© Simon Jay Price

The evening opened with Debussy’s subdued Berceuse héroïque from 1914, a piece only ‘heroic’ in the most low-key sense. There is steady, pulsing march time, but there are no exultant fanfares or passionate drumming statements. Under Jurowski's delicate leadership, the teasing and terrified early swell of this short and sweet statement of respect for the Belgian defenders bloomed gently and convincingly. The almost suffocated brass piped eerily through the relentless pulse, reminiscent of the faceless tread of the war machine. The drive of the piece is entirely supported by a nervously vibrating string section, and when the piece’s internal anxiety explodes in a short burst near the middle, Jurowski showed lovely control in managing the piece’s descent back into an almost lyrical pensiveness, ending with a final trumpet blare.

We then shifted gears for a world première, Finn Magnus Lindberg’s Triumf att finnas till… (“Triumph to Exist…”), an ambitious – not to say mystical – statement on the transient beauty (and terror) of life. The work sets poems by the modernist Edith Södergran, a Swedish-speaking Finn like Lindberg and a huge influence on subsequent Scandinavian writers and musicians. Rather like Debussy’s Berceuse, the poems express a jarring desire for pure life-essence set against constant reminders of the darkness inherent in being in the world. Södergran’s images pit the individual ("a lonely world in millions of worlds") against vast backdrops ("Islands on fire! Islands like torches! / Islands on victory parade!"), which, though largely natural, carry the kind of size and menace perfectly suited to the massive, anti-human mechanism of war.

Lindberg’s setting of these seven poems for choral forces expands on this push-pull relationship. An aura of deep calm was finely threaded through the piece, over twenty-five minutes in length with many highly fraught peaks of emotion. Jurowsky’s sensitivity was again displayed, teasing the richness from the orchestra and the choir’s clashing textures – often voices struggling against orchestra in a kind of enactment of the clash between life-force and terror. Calm was reintroduced by strings, which seemed to gather in a meditative energy only to be quickly displaced by rapid-fire, slithering scales. Maintaining such an inner tension as was inherent in Södergran’s dense and heavy poems was the outstanding achievement of a demanding, rewarding (and yes, dense) work; the performers’ understanding and dedication, however, never wavered.

Post-interval brought Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles, finished in 1966 and almost his last completed work. It was a clear progression from the meditativeness of Debussy, to the conflict in Lindberg, to the chilly austerity of Stravinsky’s truncated setting of the Latin mass. Perhaps the most effective performance of the evening, Jurowski and the LPO brought a rhythmic bite that somehow made Stravinsky’s particularly dark take on the requiem mass feel necessary, as though, from the conflict of Södergran’s world, we had now fallen into Stravinsky’s, looking back on the wreckage of yet another world war and the Holocaust. As a superbly controlled performance concluded, a definite chill echoed through the hall as the final "Libera me" faded out, and the tolling-bell chords accepted some kind of release.

Some ritualistic, mystical cleansing was probably necessary and it was brought in the form of Janáček’s cantata The Eternal Gospel, mysteriously summoning up the prophecy of a 12th-century monk, adding a soprano and tenor to the LPO and London Philharmonic Choir’s forces. Based on Czech poet Jaroslav Vrchlický’s re-writing of the prophecy made by Joachim of Fiore in 12th-century Italy, Janáček’s piece is, again, a bizarre exercise in dichotomies as the short, declamatory solo parts interchange with repeated, insistent moments of orchestral beauty. The opening motif, a sharply rising figure, was gorgeously rolled out, and the performance stayed aloft with flights of solo violin melody and the illumination-by-lightning represented in the woodwinds, all interweaving. Janáček’s rollicking, quite mad choral explosion at the work’s conclusion seemed, somehow, a totally correct way to round out an evening of such contrast between despair, hope, and the urge to keep the flame burning.

****1