It’s always interesting to ponder how future generations will read the present. I can well imagine a musicologist looking for significance in this performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — exactly one month after Brexit, possibly an act of solidarity? — but they would be barking up the wrong flagpole. Nevertheless, democracy and collectivism were hard at work as Jurowski’s decidedly undictatorial style fostered a strong on-stage community amongst the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, who ultimately conjured Elysium itself.

Vladimi Jurowski © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Vladimi Jurowski
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

I see the four-movement symphony as a journey to the heart of this blessed land, ferrying the listener, like a tourist in a foreign country, to catch a tantalising glimpse of the ‘Ode to Joy’. However, the journey to the centre of this Ninth began on a tributary, with the premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Two Episodes. Lindberg (who is currently the LPO’s composer-in-residence) hoped: ‘to create music that leads naturally to the amazing opening of the Ninth Symphony but which can also have an independent life of its own.’ The Two Episodes chew on the themes and characters of the first and third movements respectively, creating both an up-beat to the symphony and a demonstration of its legacy: ‘to where the great revolutionary may have been heading’. The first is tense and expectant, with swelling strings, rapping percussion, and pining brass, but with rays of Wagnerian warmth; and the second, supposedly ‘closer to the beauty of the slow movement’, is a volley of filmic fanfares as if heralding our arrival at the Great Gates of the Ninth. This is artful programming, but perhaps too exclusive? What of the people there to hear the symphony for the first time?

The nondescript title invited unfamiliar listeners to engage with the music at face value, but finding a detailed description of Lindberg’s Beethovenian subtext in the programme would soon have left you feeling a little excluded. If there had been no concern for the work’s accessibility or its ‘independent life’, the title would surely have embraced the piece’s true retrospective make-up, but choosing ‘Two Episodes’ was clearly a way of signing off some full-blown canonic naval-gazing with one hand, whilst ticking the legacy box with the other. That a commission can consider programme cohesion, accessibility and legacy is laudable, but the result was music with an identity crisis.

Once Lindberg had dropped us off at the gates, Jurowski’s Ninth, by comparison, couldn’t have felt more assured; but the performance didn’t belong to an individual. Eschewing convention, the humble Jurowski guided the LPO with economy and deference, allowing them to ‘become brothers’. So often with orchestral music we derive our judgement of a performance from the conductor – my eyes are usually glued to the podium – who is invariably simulating the drama of the music, perhaps for their own indulgence. Jurowski, often invisible, casting his gaze left, then right, was encouraging the orchestra to play with itself and at once my attention was drawn to the whole stage.

The LPO had fielded a small, Beethoven-sized orchestra, but despite this it was capable of a sound greater than the sum of its parts when united in executing the symphony’s many rhetorical outbursts. In the first movement, the orchestra’s size did deny it full impact, but throughout, Jurowski monitored carefully, teasing the audience by saving the beans right until the closing bars. The Scherzo lacked a sense of fun, but the warmth of the Adagio made me keenly aware of the thousands of people around me (‘Join in one embrace, you millions!’) as the music spoke beyond itself.

Left to right: Miah Persson, Anna Stéphany, John Daszak, Christopher Purves © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Left to right: Miah Persson, Anna Stéphany, John Daszak, Christopher Purves
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

After a long wait on stage, the choir communicated Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ with energy and clarity, easily soaring over a full-tilt, motoric LPO. The soloists were placed between the choir, just above the back of the orchestra, which, in principle, looked right – all the singers standing as one – but, in practice, they just couldn’t compete with the orchestra; tenor, John Daszak was barely audible in the Janissary-band section. Christopher Purves was not his usual resonant self as he broke the symphony’s vocal silence, and his German was somewhat English. Nevertheless, the choir’ ecstatic double fugue found me staring up into ‘the starry vault’, enjoying a brief moment of transcendence; tears of joy.

In so many ways the LPO and Jurowski captured the communal spirit of the symphony, in both their approach and their delivery. This was no ‘Great’ Ninth, but an intimate, inclusive musical offering. Despite identity flaws, Lindberg’s Two Episodes were a welcoming invitation to what is perhaps the most overly revered work of the classical canon. Considering that, it was so refreshing to see a conductor humble himself to symphony’s enduring ideals. I think Beethoven would be heartened to know that audiences can still find hope and, thankfully, joy in this music.