You can’t accuse Vladimir Jurowski of lacking ambition. This LPO concert of his, featuring artfully sequenced works by Beethoven, Schoenberg and Nono, was dedicated “to all the people in the world who are still suffering injustice”. This may have been biting off more than is easily chewed, but this keenly political concert was a fascinating journey, even if a few doubts remain as to precisely what point was being made.
Jurowski also informed us that the programme was conceived “as a work, in five movements”, rather than as a series of works, and the concept behind this “work” was at times very clear, with all the evening’s pieces riffing on themes of freedom and (in more of Jurowski’s words) “the all-enduring power of the human spirit”. Beethoven’s Fidelio overture opened proceedings, before both of Schoenberg’s war-themed works for reciter and ensemble, the Ode to Napoleon and A Survivor from Warsaw. After the interval was the UK première of Luigi Nono’s brief dramatic fragment Julius Fučík, a similar piece in cast to both Schoenbergs, followed without a break by Beethoven’s Fifth. All were played incisevely and with brilliant, precise attack by the LPO, but what was most intriguing was the programming.
Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon was written during the Second World War and channels the anger of Lord Byron’s poem against that tyrant of Schoenberg’s own time, Adolf Hitler. The strength of feeling in the subject matter makes for some of Schoenberg’s most visceral serialist writing, although the setting for “reciter” is sometimes slightly jolting in effect – it’s to be spoken as naturally as possible, but rhythm and inflections of pitch are still very precisely prescribed. Robert Hayward’s delivery of this somewhat testing part was magnificent.
Hayward was equally impressive in A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), which followed immediately. While similar in concept to the Ode, this briefer piece packs even more punch, with a tight dramatic form and a beautiful, powerful conclusion in which a male chorus (representing the inmates of a concentration camp) breaks into a Jewish hymn. I retain doubts about Schoenberg’s wisdom in setting his own text, which lacks a poet’s touch, but it’s a wonderful and worthwhile work all the same. The Gentlemen of the London Philharmonic Chorus made the most of their brief appearance, and musically this was a brilliant conclusion to the concert’s first half.
Nono’s Julius Fučík also relates a story from a Nazi concentration camp, though unlike Schoenberg’s, a true one. Fučík was a Czechoslovak journalist whom the Nazis imprisoned in a Prague camp for his involvement with communists. He was executed in 1943, but his writings from the camp survived, and were published as Notes from the Gallows in 1947. This 1951 piece is the first of a projected two-movement work on Fučík which was never finished. Here, it was given an impressively thorough multimedia workout, with the two actors staging their dialogue along with lighting effects and a projected film. Most striking, though, was the music, which sounded refreshingly free from Schoenberg’s influence, with soft, sinister rustles from a widely arranged percussion section, fragmentary melodic thoughts wandering around the ensemble, and enough sonic space left for the actors to make their spoken parts resonate.
Both of Schoenberg’s pieces end with a clear musical gesture of hope – the Ode with a burst of E flat major, and A Survivor from Warsaw with its hymn – but the last word in Nono’s, as Fučík goes to his death, is an inspiring thought for voice alone, the music having receded into the shadows. Perhaps to correct this lack of explicit musical optimism, this ten-minute piece was suffixed with Beethoven’s Fifth. A little odd though this was, this bracing rendition was well paced by Jurowski, with a grandeur in the steadily-taken finale that reinforced a sense of dignity rather than triumphalism appropriate given the grim themes touched on earlier.
While the effect of all this was considerable, I would still query the role into which this programme cast its 20th-century works. Though clearly the evening championed its three central pieces, overall the evening constituted a progression from Beethoven to... Beethoven – which perhaps speaks of a rather narrow conception of how human dignity can be made manifest in music. There is also the danger that such programming can reinforce the notion that the more aurally abrasive musical works of the 20th century can only be aesthetically justified by their political relevance: we live in a scarred, fractured world, so we only deserve scarred, fractured music. This is not the case: there is beauty aplenty even in those Schoenberg works which do not have an explicit political agenda. And besides, Beethoven has been the musical bastion for our concepts of heroism, freedom and human dignity for the best part of two centuries now, during which time numerous horrific tragedies have come and gone. Perhaps we could even start looking elsewhere if we want rousing statements of this kind.
That said, this was undeniably remarkable programming, and it’s a thrill to have all these issues presented within a single evening. If only more concerts could be as lucid and provocative as this.
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