Vladimir Jurowski, the Principal Conductor of the LPO, is an avid proponent of Schnittke’s works, seeing him as uniquely influenced by both classical Europe and the Russian tradition, and has devised a three-week-long festival of concerts, film screenings and seminars.
This, the second event in the series, featured a semi-staged abridged performance (directed by Annabel Arden) of Schnittke’s final opera, Historia von D. Johann Fausten.
The rest of the programme drew its inspiration from the theme of magic, and opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 22, nicknamed ‘The Philosopher’ contemporary commentators saw in its Adagio first movement either the slowed passage of time around someone deep in thought, or (in the extended dialogue between the cors anglais and the violins) a musical representation of a philosophical debate.
Unfortunately, Jurowski and the orchestra did not seem quite comfortable with Haydn’s music; there were some delightfully rasping flurries by the two natural horns, and the final movement was a Presto paced to perfection, but on the whole it was all just a bit too ponderous solid, but not inspiring.
Two orchestral episodes from Wagner’s Parsifal completed the first half the Prelude and the beginning of Act III, with its representation of the Karfreitagszauber, the Good Friday spell. Here, the orchestra sounded much more at home, and Jurowski worked his own magic, exquisitely contrasting the rapt religiosity of the Prelude with the sensual beauty of the Good Friday music.
After the interval, Faust began with the choir half-singing, half-chanting the printer’s introduction to the story, before tenor Markus Brutscher started his narration, strolling around the hall and continuing to pop up throughout the work. Stephen Richardson was outstanding as the protagonist, utterly credible both as the egoistic philosopher greedy for power and as the mortal man fated to a horrible death.
Schnittke assigned the role of Mephistopheles to two voices a seducing countertenor and a harridan of a contralto. Andrew Watts sang and acted magnificently Schnittke exploits the full range of the countertenor voice to ear-splitting effect and gave us a delightful turn in leggings and heels during the final act, in conjunction with
Anna Larsson, as Mephistophilia, who featured little during the first two acts, but stole the show during the final scenes. At the point of Faust’s death, the whole ensemble launches into a rip-roaring tango, during which Larsson strutted around the stage, microphone in hand, draping herself across the other characters and crooning about the gruesome state in which Faust’s body was found after his death.
Schnittke suffered by being disowned by both sides of the Iron Curtain as belonging to the other, but there is a great deal to discover in his music. The rest of the festival sees, among other things, performances of the Concerto for Choir and Symphony No. 3 a worthy celebration of a much-maligned figure.