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Webern, Lindberg, Berg, Schnittke: London Philharmonic, Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Vladimir Jurowski (cond.), Royal Festival Hall, London, 25.11.2009 (GDn)

Magnus Lindburg: Chorale
Berg: Violin Concerto
Schnittke: Symphony No.3

Schnittke’s Third Symphony is one of his most accomplished works, and its inclusion in the London Philharmonic’s festival of his music has a sense of inevitability, given that it is both a lavish orchestral showpiece and a manifesto of the polystylism for which the composer is famous. Context is all in this music, and Jurowski created the ideal programme with which to acknowledge Schnittke’s precedents and elucidate his subject. The subject in question is nothing less than the German Symphonic Tradition. Schnittke wrote the symphony for the opening of the new Leipzig Gewandhaus hall in 1981, and used the occasion as an opportunity to chart the history of the symphony in the German speaking world. But it is a subjective view; for Schnittke everything in German music revolves around Bach, whose pre-symphonic music (and whose name in the form of the B-A-C-H monogram) is a recurring subject. Similarly the Second Viennese School, and particularly Berg. Schnittke spent two years of his childhood in late 1940s Vienna, and as an adult retained a strong affinity with Berg’s Romantic/Expressionist Modernism.

Jurowski’s programme opened with the Webern Passacaglia Op.1, which on paper seems a curious choice, given Schnittke’s greater affinity with Berg. All became clear on hearing the work however, for the soundworld of Schnittke’s Third Symphony is staggeringly close to this early Webern score, both have a fluid approach to style, an ability to strike up a dance then allow it to wander off into the distance. Most importantly of all, both have an absolute mastery of orchestral colour (how frustrating that Webern chose a different path) and the ability to create an almost narrative sense of musical drama through purely abstract forms. The playing here, and throughout the concert, was of the highest standard, the hushed pizzicato opening performed with absolute precision and unity of intent, the later burlesques both impassioned and intense. And while every detail of the score was articulated and balanced with impeccable precision, Jurowski maintained the overview, uniting the work’s sectional structure into a single, elegantly coherent utterance.

, a recent work by Magnus Lindberg, appears on the programme by virtue to its sharing source material with Berg’s Violin Concerto, namely the Bach chorale Es ist Genug. Bach proves to be a calming influence on Lindberg’s music, toning down his usual hyperactivity. Lindberg’s perpetual energy is still present, of course, the long lines of the Bach, usually in the winds, overlayed with an array of frenetic usually string-based textures. It is interesting how, when you start looking for polystylism, you find it everywhere. The diversity in Webern’s score, for example, would hardly register were it not performed in a Schnittke-themed concert. I would be hard pressed to hear the influence (suggested in the programme note) of Schnittke on this Lindberg work, but like Schnittke’s greatest music, Chorale seamlessly integrates a stylistically remote source to create something that is more and not less idiomatic to its composer’s voice.

Leonidas Kavakos continued his recent run of spectacular concerto performances in London with his reading of the Berg. His tone has a focus which is ideal for Berg’s writing, giving clarity to the solo line and ensuring its continuity over the wide intervals as it moves across the strings. Berg’s woodwind-led textures also benefit from Kavakos’ timbral focus, his interactions with the flutes and clarinets in particular creating impressively delineated counterpoint. But the success of this performance was primarily the result of the stylistic sensibility of both soloist and orchestra. For this, too, is a work of stylistic diversity, albeit of a more covert nature than Schnittke’s, but by acknowledging the paradoxical mix of Romantic and Modern that permeates its every phrase, the performance created something truly distinctive with Berg’s most often performed work.

The Schnittke Symphony was also given a performance that could hardly have been bettered. Stylistic sensitivity was again a large part of its success, and a curious symbiosis emerges between the players’ knowledge of the performing traditions of the Classical and Romantic music that the work evokes and the composer’s ability to exploit that knowledge. For all its postmodern cleverness, this is music that has a direct impact, an emotional immediacy that great performances such as this are able to balance with the intellectual concerns of historical reference. Berg is, of course, an important president for music that is both clever and direct, but Mahler comes through as just as important, at least from the point of view of the performing traditions that Schnittke engages. Jurowski’s understanding and sensitivity to these musical issues is unparalleled. His insightful, distinctive reading and his collaboration with an orchestra who are on top form produced a profound, consummate, but above all, powerful and direct reading of Schnittke’s great and complex score.

Gavin Dixon

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