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.