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Schnittke and Haydn: Soloists, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Vladimir Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall, London 28.11.2009 (GDn)


Schnittke: Cello Concerto no.2

Haydn: The Last Seven Words of our Saviour on the Cross (oratorio version)


Alexander Ivashkin – cello

Lisa Milne – soprano

Ruxandra Donose – mezzo

Andrew Kennedy – tenor

Christopher Maltman - baritone


The London Philharmonic’s Schnittke festival came to a spectacular conclusion with this evening’s performance of his Second Cello Concerto. Even by Schnittke’s standards this is an extraordinary work, part concerto, part symphony, part...well, ultimately it leaves generic conventions behind in its quest for inscrutable spiritual truths. But at the same time it is one of Schnittke’s most frustrating works, written at the start of the 1990s, at a time when his deteriorating health was just starting to become a serious impediment to his artistic expression. Its status as a late work is acknowledged by the composer through the reminiscence it evokes, the mighty passacaglia that closes the work based on his earlier music for the film Agonia. But the music also continually seeks new directions, in particular in the orchestra’s relationship with the soloist, at first reverential accompaniment, later darkly shadowing as an ironic doppelganger and finally subsuming the cello’s voice into it’s all embracing sonorities.

The work was written for Mstislav Rostropovich, but its most ardent champion throughout its performance history has been this evening’s soloist, Alexander Ivashkin. It is a tough part; double and triple stopping are regularly the rule rather than the exception, subtle gradations between portamento and glissando are required to voice its utterances, and the upper register is exploited extensively and in ways rarely heard in other concertos. The slightly shaky intonation in the opening passage was forgivable, given that it is in high register, fortissimo and unaccompanied, and was all but forgotten after the orchestra entered. What followed was a masterful performance from soloist and orchestra alike. Ivashkin has a rare ability (in truth rarely required) to make an angular, almost uncomfortable tone on the cello. It is necessary here because of the inner angst that permeates the solo line, and also because of the need to cut through the expansive orchestral textures. As with all the concerts in this Schnittke season, Jurowski and the LPO forces excelled in bringing life and immediacy to Schnittke’s complex score. Rarely before have his unusual orchestral combinations sounded so intuitively natural, the cello doubled by flexatone at the octave for example, or the penetrating top register of the solo instrument battling with the a forte brass section – and winning! The passacaglia climax takes the soloist to the limits of technical and expressive demands, not only required to battle the orchestra, but also to hang in until the end, defeated perhaps but still fighting nonetheless. The expressive power of Ivashkin’s playing ensured that he kept the audience on his side throughout, his penetrating tone, right up until it was finally subsumed, a beacon guiding the ear through the cataclysmic textures building around it.

No such tensions in Haydn’s oratorio version of his Seven Last Words which formed the second half. This is the second Haydn coupling of the LPO’s Schnittke festival, exaggerating perhaps the artistic connections between the two composers. True, Schnittke shared Haydn’s sense of humour, his First Symphony something of a response to the earlier composer’s Farewell Symphony. But there are precious few japes in the last words of Jesus from the cross. On the other hand, both this and the Schnittke concerto are works by composers in their later years based on music from earlier in their careers, and both are works of compositional mastery based on a determination to communicate deep spiritual truth.

It was an impressive performance from orchestra, choir and soloists alike. Of the soloists, Christopher Maltman was the star, his baritone voice comfortably accommodating both his natural tessitura and the low bass registers occasionally required of him. The orchestra weren’t quite up to the exceptional standards of the first half, and the ensemble of the string section occasionally compromised the textures. In fairness though, this piece is a tough call for the strings, given that the audience can’t help but unconsciously compare their playing with the memory of so the quartet version. They would have to have the precision of the Vienna Philharmonic to even come close, so it is perhaps no surprise that the strings occasionally sounded imprecise. No such qualms about the choir though. Both the precision of their ensemble and the expressivity of their singing elevated the entire performance. The result achieved something all too rare in among Haydn performances, a perfect combination of fidelity to the score and immediacy of expression.

Gavin Dixon

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