From the string sighs of “Désir”, the first of Oliver Knussen’s Scriabin Settings, to the hollow rasp of the double basses’ dying growls in the “Pathétique”, this was a concert to strain the ears. Vladimir Jurowski, opening the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s new season, forced us to listen – and concentrate – hard, paring dynamics to the merest whisper. In the first movement of his Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky asks the bassoonist to play four descending notes pppppp, a marking so impossible it’s usually passed – as here – to the bass clarinettist. One suspected Jurowski wanted it even quieter.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra © Ben Ealovega
The London Philharmonic Orchestra
© Ben Ealovega

The conductor had a willing accomplice in Julia Fischer, soloist in Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, in a first half which continued the LPO’s year long exploration of British music, “Isle of Noises”. But the evening opened with Scriabin Settings, five late piano miniatures dressed by Knussen in the subtlest of pastel shades, played here with exquisite detail, especially from Juliette Bausor’s soft-breathed flute. Slinky woodwinds entwined in the perfumed “Caresse dansée”, while the inquisitive “Énigme” fluttered and pecked with Firebird-like curiosity.

That inquisitive atmosphere ran on into the Britten, one of the first fruits of the composer’s self-imposed American exile, completed in September 1939 just as war broke out in Europe. Question marks hover above the concerto’s beginning and its close, the timpani’s five-note motif – first softly, then more forcefully, raising the initial enquiries which continue as a nagging ostinato. Fischer’s blissful entrance signalled an approach which highlighted the wistful fragility of the concerto; even her double-stopping rippled with silk. In the brittle Scherzo, her attack was clean, but never harsh, the bite coming from the LPO brass and the grotesque piccolo–tuba duet that interrupts. Fischer found a suitably wiry tone for the fiendish cadenza, with steely left-hand pizzicato, while she turned the final movement, the first time Britten employed passacaglia form, into a searching soliloquy. The closing moments were breathtaking, the violin stretching ever higher, probing, pleading, seeking an answer that never quite comes. It’s a desperately lonely conclusion.

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the LPO © Ben Ealovega
Vladimir Jurowski conducts the LPO
© Ben Ealovega

Desperation – or despair – is never far below the surface in Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony. Considering it was premiered just nine days before his death – long rumoured to be suicide – it’s easy to tie this emotional score to the composer’s biography. Although he coaxed an incredibly rich string sound from the LPO, Jurowski approached the “Pathétique” dry-eyed, a powerful reading full of desolation and terror. Over the groaning lower strings, emerging from near silence, Jonathan Davies’ grainy bassoon tone set the mood – hushed but gripped with tension. Jurowski never let that tension slip: the Allegro vivo section of the first movement was hard-driven, basses clattering their bows, trombones acting as messengers of doom.

This was a bleak, nihilistic “Pathétique”, the most devastating I’ve heard in concert. With a minimal baton pulse, Jurowski pushed the 5/4 waltz without the flicker of a smile, while the march was stony-faced, angry, brusque; no fist-pumping triumph here, but a terrifying ride. The finale stared deep into the abyss and found no comfort, no consolation. There was no wallowing either, save a few mannered pauses; it was just a cold, long stare into the void.

*****