Marking the path of individual in the modern world
Vladimir Jurowski/London Philharmonic Orchestra, 3 and 10 November 2018
Two concerts of London Philharmonic orchestra in November 2018 were part of their «Changing faces: Stravinsky journey» programme that would come to an end in December 2018. The orchestra and its principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski have been exploring Stravinsky’s journey and his influences since February 2018 and have done it chronologically, so now they are on Stravinsky’s American period, exploring works he wrote in 1950s and 1960s. According to his initial vision, Jurowski surrounds a work by Stravinsky by a very inventive programme – thus, the concert on 10th November (called ‘An eternal flame’) featured one of the last works by composer ‘Requiem Canticles’ for two soloists, chorus and orchestra and was accompanied by two other choral works: ‘The eternal gospel’ by Janáček and ‘Triump to Exist’ by a modern Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. But it was by a full evening of Stravinsky that Jurowski started this two-evenings marathon a week before, on 3rd November, by making a semi-staged version of Stravinsky’s opera ‘The Rake’s Progress’. And two evenings are actually a world apart, exploring the experiments with composition style and genres that Stravinsky was actively engaged in during that time.
‘The Rake’s Progress’ can bring some questions: is this opera mocking Mozart creations? Why does a harpsichord have to appear in a post-World War II modern piece? Does its plot reflect the moods and atmospere of the 1950s or rather serves as an escapist piece for people in the aftermath of atrocities? A story of a decline of a young man based on 18th century engravings by William Hogarth in fact could remind us of Mann’s ‘Confessions of Felix Krull’, and a gradual decline of an individual in a world full of temptations is very much 20th century, however parodic the form of the story’s presentation could be. And indeed there is a ghost of Thomas Mann when we discover that the main character has signed a contract with Mephisto disguised as his servant. The libretto was written by W.H.Auden and Chester Kallman, and they also don’t lose an opportunity to inject a lot of irony and parody into verses, giving Stravinsky room for exploring comedy and entertainment in his composition, while avoiding excesses of pathos and keeping the desired coolness of approach.
In ‘The Rake’s Progress’ poor Tom becomes rich after his uncle leaves him a fortune, leaves his fiancée Anna and explores all what London has to offer: is he a new Dorian Gray or Eugene Onegin? Anna, however, follows him and loves from a distance, even forgiving his strange marriage to a bearded Turkish woman Baba, but finds him insane in a Bedlam after demonic revelations of his servant Nick Shadow, and leaves him there. Jurowski and his team decided to highlight inventiveness and irony of Stravinsky’s opera, where even the recitatives accompanied by harpsichord seemed part of a strangely modern, evocative stylistic design. Thus, there were several directorial decisions involving a chorus (London voices), where its men and women became a machine producing bread for Tom and thus ridiculing Nick Shadow’s ‘invention’. The women from the choir also became ‘prostitutes’ in a brothel, while the aria near the RFH’s organ was used as a vantage point for Baba the Turk to appear in her veiled glory. The singers were also exploring the border between earnestness and parody, with countertenor Andrew Watts remarkably excelling in his female exotic role. The protagonists – Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell and a young Sophia Burgos (a beautiful, lyrical soprano who reminded me of Micaëla from ‘Carmen’ in her impersonation of sincere, unconditional and modest love) as Anne Trulove – were taking their acting very seriously, while always exploring the additional lightness and a sense of distance needed for the score. A definite success of an evening with that ever-present mix of seriousness, exploration and fun that Vladimir Jurowski brings to his programmes.
Another evening was completely different and, leaving any attempts at stylization, plunged itself into modernity, where on the eve of 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the World War I the questions of where an individual stands in relation to all disasters, worries and unpredictability of the world are more poignant than ever. In a way, a puppet-like Tom Rakewell now grows into a sophisticated modern individual, and it is his anxieties that Jurowski and London Philharmonic wanted to explore on that night. Jurowski started the night by a hugely anticipated premiere of a new work – for chorus and orchestra – by a renowned Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg who has been a composer-in-residence with LPO since 2014/2015 season.
As material for his work Lindberg took poems of a Swedish poet Edith Södergran who lived in St Petersburg and in its suburb Roshchino (then called Raivola and being part of Finland). While in 1916 the First World War was raging, young Edith, though already diagnosed with tuberculosis, writes a series of metaphysical modernist poems where she finds her place among planets, under the sun (or, rather, on it), beneath the stars, and imagines the doors of nature opening for the train of future. As Lindberg writes, in this poetry ‘every syllable cries out to be set to music’. For the composer, who is driven by exploration of new harmonic combinations, the challenge was to find stylistic equivalents for moods and music of the beginning of the century, and to find melodic interpretation for this poetry so as to enpower the text further and explore its cosmic scale. The choir and orchestra led by Jurowski followed the climaxes suggested by the composer’s score (the fourth text – ‘The planets’ and also the final one, ‘The train of the future), only to reinstate the first text again, now with a sense of introspection and a circle, as if this choral work was somehow echoing a famous Gaughin picture in posing a question: ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’.
The established feeling of being positioned somewhere between the earth and the sky, between present and the future, and also between reality and fantasy, was upheld by music explored in the second part of the concert. ‘The eternal gospel’ by Janáček is a cantata scored for chorus, soloists and orchestra is telling an almost fantastical story where a Christian monk Joachim of Rore (sung by a tenor Vsevolod Grivnov in the concert) envisions a Kingdom of the Spirit through an epiphany coming from an Angel (soprano Andrea Danková). Here the medieval legend set to music composed before the World War I and performed in 1917 echoes the previous work by 21st century composer in its description of an individual trying to establish a realm of happiness despite all the doom of the reality. A person challenging the world wins - in music and legend, if not in life. Another piece in this part was the last finished work by Igor Stravinsky – ‘Requiem Canticles’, composed in 1966 and performed at his funeral five years later. The application of serial technique to writing of this work results in a general feeling of fragile search for peace and harmony, as this piece goes to corners and angles driving the listener out of his comfort zones, while somehow the overall requiem structure and Latin text gives the sense of formal grandeur and structure and balances our oral experience into a newly perceived and found harmony. An exceptional, unusual and very thoughtful programme from Vladimir Jurowski and LPO on the eve of the important historical date that made us all look back into the history of the first grand-scale disaster of the century and see in retrospect whether the individual can still regain his or her sense of being in this world during such moments. A metaphysical experience was offered through combination of three works marking the passing of the century since WWI, from 1917 to 2018, and making us look into the future with inspired and focused glance.