This latest concert in the Southbank’s The Rest is Noise season celebrating cultural landmarks of the twentieth century was a perfect case study for music of what W. H. Auden called the “low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s. The well-balanced programme offered the opportunity to understand composers’ workings within forms both new and old in the darkening political context of the thirties.
Anton Webern may not be a crowd-pulling composer, but Jurowski’s lengthy remarks about the Variations for Orchestra shortly before he stood on the podium helped to make sense of this brief (seven-minutes-long) piece. Variations (1941) includes music of extreme tautness, economy and clarity. Every note counts, and each one must be heard by the small orchestra of woodwind and brass quartets, strings, harp, celesta and timpani. Jurowski and his LPO players skilfully pared the scoring down to essentials, with the hawk-eyed conductor in supreme control.
Moving back in time, we entered the emotionally intense world of Alban Berg’s Lulu. Begun in 1928, the opera was not quite finished at Berg’s death in 1935, but during 1934 he made a suite of excerpts. Berg’s score is as finely crafted as Webern’s music, but it pulsates with lyricism, decadence and foreboding. The LPO’s expansive unfolding of the ‘Rondo (Andante and Hymn)’ created a powerful opening, aided by sultry saxophone and vibraphone. The palindromic ‘Ostinato’ then burst forward, marking the moment in the opera when a silent newsreel shows Lulu’s trial and imprisonment for the murder of her husband, Dr Schön. Half-way through, soprano Barbara Hannigan entered, in a short dress, fur collared coat and vertiginously high heels. It was as if we were witnessing her inexorable slide from femme fatale to common prostitute. This was traced in ‘Lulu’s Song’, where Hannigan’s vocal power matched Berg’s considerable demands. Sheer horror marked the conclusion of the ensuing ‘Variations’, as Jack the Ripper’s knife plunged through the orchestra, followed by Countess Geschwitz’ lament for her slaughtered lover.
The second half of the concert was taken up with works by Bartók and Martinů for antiphonal string orchestras. Both Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Martinů’s Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani were commissioned by Paul Sacher for the Basel Chamber Orchestra and performed within two years of each other (in 1936 and 1938 respectively). In the Bartók, the slow movements were especially well played, with a haunting, mysterious quality to the opening ‘Andante tranquillo’ and the ‘night music’ of the third-movement ‘Adagio’. The speedier passages sometimes felt a little ruptured by tempo shifts, but overall it was a coolly mathematical approach to the score.
Martinů’s orchestral concerto is not really in the same league as Bartók’s, but its aims are different, and it is perhaps a more direct work. It is no less driven, and the LPO and Jurowski made furious work of the outer ‘Allegro’ movements. The elegant but haunting chaconne in the centre benefited from Catherine Edwards’ accomplished solo piano playing, which stirred feelings of loss and isolation at the very moment that Martinů’s Czech homeland was signed over to the Nazis in September 1938.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.