At first glance the three works given on Saturday night might appear to have had little in common, but as it turned out they belonged to a theme exploring death, with all its associated hopes and fears. Artfully conceived though the programming was, the combination of Taneyev and his mentor Tchaikovsky revealed a musical and emotional gulf – devotional restraint set against unbridled passion.

Vladimir Jurowski © Sheila Rock
Vladimir Jurowski
© Sheila Rock

The close proximity of these two Russians made an interesting juxtaposition but did little for Taneyev. It was, however, gratifying to hear his rarely performed cantata St John of Damascus and given by the combined forces of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Choir directed by Vladimir Jurowski. This official Opus 1 dates from 1884 (written after 40 or so earlier works) and sets a poem by Alexei Tolstoy outlining the last thoughts of the great Orthodox saint as he prepares to meet his maker. Taneyev responds to this spiritual journey with music rich in dignity and intensity of expression, its compositional rigour a reflection of his immersion in Bachian counterpoint during his teaching at the Moscow Conservatory (where he had replaced Tchaikovsky). Taneyev was proud that he had “worked into the cantata every possible ingenious contrapuntal combination” and in one sense that was his handicap for this generally attractive work incorporates not one but two fugues and their dry rigour never quite adequately supports the text.

Despite this, the 90-strong London Philharmonic Choir sang with firm conviction (no doubt pleased to perform a non-repertoire work) and were gloriously effective in their two a cappella passages. Whilst there was plenty of warm tone and disciplined ensemble, vowel colour declared early on that this was a British choir singing in Russian. Thirty or more extra singers would have settled the balance issues and the two climatic moments in the first section would have been more exciting. These reservations aside, this 20-minute work would be well worth investigating by enterprising choirs looking for something different and undemanding.

After the self-control of Taneyev we leapt headlong into Tchaikovsky’s self-indulgence, or at least his heart-on-sleeve emotions, in the Dante-inspired fantasy Francesca da Rimini, dedicated to Taneyev. Here, Jurowski produced one of those utterly compelling performances where the London Philharmonic Orchestra seemed to be play as if their lives depended on it. Alongside the dramatic narrative of Francesca’s torment (pushed on by brisk tempi) there was some wonderfully polished string playing whether in whirlwind semi-quavers and or in will-o-the wisp articulation. The brass made an impressive impact too - not holding back and yet not dominating either – and Thomas Watmough’s velvet clarinet solo was superbly shaped.

After the interval it was Jurowski’s shaping of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major that shed fresh light on a much-performed work. First off was the startling tempo that drove the opening Allegretto forward with such vigour. The tenuto markings may have been airbrushed out but the resulting sweep of the movement’s argument was revelatory. Jurowski’s faster than usual pace threw into sharper focus the darker aspects of the Andante, part of which belonged to an abandoned tone poem Don Juan whose first section dealt with the anti-hero confronting Death. Timpani and eight well-drilled double basses provided a powerfully atmospheric start to the movement. The “chattering” strings of the third movement were no less meticulously prepared and the oboe solo eloquently rendered. Pulling back the final bars before launching into the big tune of the finale worked well in a movement where Jurowski produced some magnificent climaxes. His balancing of the orchestra was illuminating, and in the way he brought out the many ostinato figures I felt as if I was encountering the music for the first time. I for one will now be listening to Sibelius with fresh ears.

****1