The London Philharmonic Orchestra certainly pulled out all the stops with a Rest is Noise programme that, in theory, should have scared the horses half to death. A concert of three large orchestral works from height of the 1960/70s avant garde, and featuring composers from behind the Iron Curtain to boot, is a very rare beast indeed. Michail Jurowski (less famous internationally than his two conductor sons, but with a pedigree as long as your arm) was the mastermind behind the event, conducting the works with consummate skill and a commanding, bear-like presence.

Michail Jurowski © Superbox
Michail Jurowski
© Superbox

We jumped right in with a shimmering account of Ligeti’s essay in pure aural colour, Lontano, from 1967. Fabulously orchestrated, its hypnotic meanderings have an impressionistic glow which made me muse that if Debussy had lived another 50 years he would have written music like this. Jurowski certainly got to the heart of the piece and the current LPO sound, warm and balanced in all departments, seemed to suit it perfectly.

This orchestral homogeneity and refinement certainly made its mark again in the next work, Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto, which he composed for Rostropovich in 1968–70. Matching this brilliance was a hugely communicative and rich-toned performance by soloist Johannes Moser. The opening cadenza demonstrated these qualities strongly, sounding uncannily like a confessional. The intrusion of the orchestra in the shape of loud-mouthed trumpets sets the scene for a bitter struggle between the interior world of the individual and the need to live in a world that is often harsh and cruel, sometimes beautiful. The ingenious construction of the piece, with its central, pivotal lament, was very well judged by Jurowski, never pushing the tempi too hard and allowing the soloist space to characterize his line. Credit should go to the composer for the finesse of his orchestration. The balance between soloist and orchestra is invariably perfectly achieved – it certainly was in this clear-headed and entertaining performance.

And then we came to Alfred Schnittke’s First Symphony. Composed secretly between 1969 and 1972, it was first performed in obscure Gorky and soon became something of a cult, though hardly anybody had heard it. The reality of the piece is that it is over an hour of anarchy, which is in equal parts fascinating, theatrical, grandiose, irritating and banal. It certainly needs to be seen in concert to get the full impact of the orchestra marching on and off the stage.

Once more, Jurowski senior definitely had the measure of the piece, holding together the complex mix of improvisation and notated passages. He and the orchestra, who were clearly enjoying themselves, never flinched from being lurid and brazen when needed, particularly in the riotous second movement. The slow movement made at a stab at genuine feeling, but the mocking, bitter/humorous voice was never far away. In the last movement, the introduction of the organ added a note of pompous solemnity to the proceedings, as befits a finale. Even the contrived last bars finding their way to a solid, unfettered major chord were not a resolution but a sardonic parody – as if nothing can be taken seriously or at face value. Ultimately, though I was clapping furiously along with the large audience, I was left with a feeling of emptiness and pointlessness – rampant nihilism, and as such, a true reflection of the time and place in which the symphony was written.