Reviewed: LPO and The Fauré Project

A shadow play of colours.

LPO, Jurowski; The Fauré Project
Royal Festival Hall; Wigmore Hall

Classical music can seem monolithic at times and yet it is subject to the same whims and fads of fashion as the other arts. In pre-war years the Proms would devote whole evenings to Beethoven and Wagner, a practice now replaced by witty juxtapositions of contrasting composers. But there’s been something retro in the air recently, with two very different concerts taking us back to those single-minded musical encounters.

At the Southbank Centre, the Rest Is Noise festival reached its gritty core in the dark times of 1930s Germany – a period in which politics gripped culture more tightly than ever before. Introducing a concert of music by Berg, Webern, Martinu and Bartók, the conductor Vladimir Jurowski warned his audience that this was “probably the most challenging programme of the year”. He was right. We’ve become so used to treating difficult and contemporary works – not always, but lazily often, synonymous – as a dose that must be swallowed along with our symphonic spoonful of sugar that we’re not prepared for the mental effort involved.

For those who took up Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s challenge, the evening offered exhilaration as well as exhaustion. We opened with Webern’s Variations for Orchestra – one of the most inscrutable works of the almost-repertoire. By encouraging us to treat it as an evolving sequence of colouristic sound-pictures, Jurowski freed the work’s suppressed lyric qualities. Moments of musical abstraction gained emotional weight as part of a narrative. Sometimes a solo violin phrase is just that, but sometimes – and this was one of those rare times – it is everything.

With the aid of the soprano Barbara Hannigan, Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from Lulu brought us back to the literal. A hazy, sleazy blend of string chords dared us to look away from the tragedy that unfolds in vivid tableaux in this orchestral digestion of Berg’s opera. Piano and muted brass cut through any consolation we might have found in the jazzinflected Ostinato that soundtracks Lulu’s trial and imprisonment, and Jurowski’s driving speeds barely paused as we hurtled on to Lulu’s death at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

A different world greeted us after the interval, pairing Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with Martinu’s Double Concert for two string orchestras, piano and timpani. Composed for the same unusual forces, Bartók’s work is a classic while Martinu’s has been unaccountably neglected. The less ascetic of the two, it might lack the intellectual heft of the Bartók, but Jurowski made a compelling case for its athletic appeal. And while the Bartók exposed some issues of ensemble within the orchestra, Martinu’s more generous writing saw the LPO united in a frenzied celebration of all that is extrovert and joyous in 20th-century music.

The softer, domestic face of the early 20th century was on show at the Wigmore Hall in the first of a sequence of three concerts – the Fauré Project – devoted to the music of Gabriel Fauré. Although best-known for his Requiem, it is in his chamber works for strings that the composer’s ear for timbre and textural effect is most striking. Anticipating the later innovations of Debussy and Ravel, Faure’s conservative image is very much at odds with the impressionistic soundscapes of his Cello Sonata in D minor and his Piano Trio in D minor – late works that might still inhabit the fading world of the salon, but fling its door wide to chromatic uncertainties and shifting alliances of harmony and counterpoint.

In many ways the Capuçon brothers (violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier) are themselves a bit of a throwback. They perform with unashamedly thick vibrato and have the lush style born of a former era of string virtuosi. It’s an approach that sits better on Gautier, with his closer attention to the detail of phrasing and intonation. The Cello Sonata with the excellent Michel Dalberto at the piano) was a shadow-play of muted colours, almost having the feel of a lieder for the dialogue of the Allegro comodo, and spinning the flimsiest of cantilenas in the slow movement.

The Violin Sonata No 2 in E minor, by contrast, was all primary colours and punch. Renaud Capuçon’s energy is intoxicating but in flinging his talent so vehemently at his audience he denies Fauré’s ebbing lines the retreat and release they need to heighten their climaxes. Coming together for the Piano Trio and earlier Piano Quartet No 1 in C minor, the brothers still maintained their differing approaches, with Gautier pulling back to allow the piano its melodic moment, or duet delicately with the viola. Renaud, meanwhile, remained ever the soloist, seizing ear and attention with every broad gesture of his bow.

The conductor Vladimir Jurowski.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Russian pools, despatches from the Pole, and disagreeing with my son Boris on Brexit

My week, from Moscow to Westminster Hour.

With the weather in Moscow last week warm, if not balmy, I thought about taking a dip in the vast heated open-air swimming pool that I remembered from a previous visit. My Russian host shook his head. “That would have been the great Moskva Pool. Stalin actually tore down the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to make way for it. But, after perestroika, they filled in the pool and rebuilt the church!” So I didn’t have my open-air swim, though I did visit the cathedral instead.

In the evening, spiritually if not physically refreshed, I addressed a gathering of Russian businessmen and bankers who were keen to learn what impact Brexit might have on the London property and investment scene, the UK being a prime destination for their money. We met in the old Ukraina Hotel, now splendidly refurbished and relaunched as the Radisson Royal, Moscow. A Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith was parked in the foyer, a snip at £150,000. “There is a great democratic debate going on in Britain at the moment,” I told my audience. “The issues are finely balanced. I’m for staying in. But on 23 June, the British people, not the politicians, not the tycoons, nor the lobbyists, will decide.”

I noted some uneasy laughter at this point. Russia’s fledgling democracy probably still has some way to go before matters of such moment are left to the people.


Culture club

I spent the next afternoon in the Tretyakov Gallery. A rich businessman, Pavel Tretyakov, collected thousands of items of Russian art (mainly icons and paintings) and donated both them and his magnificent house to the state in 1892. Over time, the state has added many more artefacts, including some from the vast storerooms of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

My guide, Tatiana Gubanova, a senior curator, had recently organised the loan of several items from the Tretyakov to London’s National Portrait Gallery, where they are currently still on display in the splendid “Russia and the Arts” exhibition. She said that she was looking forward to returning to London next year: “The Royal Academy is planning a special exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.” Whatever happens at the political level, it is good to know that our cultural links with Russia are still flourishing.


Heading south

Just before I left for Moscow, I attended ­Adrian Camrose’s funeral in St Bride’s Church, off Fleet Street. The scion of a great newspaper family, Adrian made his mark as the Daily Telegraph’s science correspondent.

In early 1984, I went to Antarctica with him. We shared a cabin on a British Antarctic Survey ship while it visited research ­stations “down south”. I was writing a book on Antarctica, subtitled “the Last Great Wilderness”, while Adrian sent a series of crisp despatches to the Telegraph via the ship’s radio-telex. Adrian’s dateline was “On board the John Biscoe, Antarctica”. Distant galaxies were Adrian’s consuming passion. I am sure he is filing stories from the spaceship Spacey McSpaceFace even as I write.


Green surge

As co-chairman with Baroness (Barbara) Young of Environmentalists for Europe, my life has been fairly hectic recently. I am sure it will get more so as the referendum day approaches. I know perfectly well that one of the reasons the invitations to speak or write articles ping into my inbox is the titillation factor. Are Families Divided on the Referendum? Is “Boris’s Dad” (that’s me!) going to Disagree with Boris?

Notwithstanding the family relationship, which I deeply treasure, the answer is “yes”. I am going to disagree. Boris and Michael Gove and other key members of the Brexit team have injected a wonderful level of vigour and energy into the referendum debate. They have raised issues, besides the economy, which needed to be discussed, particularly sovereignty, immigration and the EU’s general direction of travel. For this, the nation owes them a debt of gratitude. That said, I am convinced that this is not the moment to call time on the UK’s membership of the EU. As I see it, the best way to address the obvious problems is not to leave the EU but to “Remain” and to fight for change from within. In the end, this will benefit not just the UK but Europe as a whole.


Quiet no more

Last Sunday evening, I took part in the BBC Radio 4 programme Westminster Hour. My fellow panellists were the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Baroness Smith of Basildon, formerly Angela Smith MP, now the shadow leader of the House of Lords.

We had a very lively and sometimes rowdy discussion. IDS is the “quiet man” who, since his resignation from the cabinet a couple of months ago, has regained his voice in no uncertain terms. Baroness Smith, a delightfully unpushy lady, sometimes found it difficult to get a word in edgeways. I don’t think I did so well myself.

But I did, I hope, make it clear that, from my point of view, there was still time to build on all that was good in the EU (such as its environmental record), while seeking common rather than unilateral solutions for the problems that persist.

On 24 June, if the Remain side wins, the government should go into action in Europe with all cylinders firing and with our politicians and diplomats working overtime, to get the arrangements that we need and deserve. On the way out, IDS said to me, “It won’t work. They won’t have it.”

He may be right. But I still think we should give it a go. You don’t file for divorce as a result of a single tiff, not after more than 40 years of marriage.

On the issues of immigration, for example, and possible changes to the EU’s freedom of movement rules, we may find more allies in Europe than we think.

Stanley Johnson is co-chairman of Environmentalists for Europe:

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad