Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LPO/Jurowski @ Royal Festival Hall, London

20 February 2010

Vladimir Jurowski

Vladimir Jurowski

Vladimir Jurowski conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a blazing account of Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony, demonstrating why this symphony is coming into its own, over a hundred years after it was written.

Asrael is the angel of death in the bible. Antonn Dvořák was Suk’s father figure and mentor. Suk married his daughter. When both wife and father-in-law died suddenly, within months of each other, Suk was traumatised. He channelled his grief into music with this symphony.

This work is monumental, built on two huge sections like pillars. The scale is panoramic, even cinematic in the way its moods progress in distinct episodes. By emphasising dynamic contrast, Jurowski keeps up the momentum, so the traverse keeps moving towards its resolution. Big as the piece is, what’s striking is its understatement and quiet dignity. Brass fanfares, for example, are deliberately muted so they sound numb and hollow. It’s a jolt, since brass often heralds triumph.

Solo instrumentals are pivotal. There’s a dialogue between Kristina Blaumane’s cello and Alex Venlizon’s first violin. Cellos feature strongly in the first part, generally understood as a portrait of Suk’s dead wife. The composer himself played violin. So beneath the tumult, there’s surprising intimacy. It isn’t just the image of a biblical angel that comforts Suk, but the memory of his happy marriage

Another angel appears in Janáček’s The Eternal Gospel. This time, though, it’s an angel from the Book of Revelation. The poem’s an apocalyptic vision of the world purged by destruction, to be born anew. Janáček wrote this during the First World War, and at a critical point in the Czech struggle for independence. The “Allelujahs!” here aren’t religious, but political.

Adrian Thompson substituted at very short notice for the scheduled tenor, so his performance was truly remarkable. He sings almost the whole 20-minute piece, and in Czech, a tough language to master. His diction was so clear that it was easy to follow the text throughout. He was audible, even above large orchestra and choir. An impressive achievement, for which he deserves major praise.

The London Philharmonic was in superb form with Asrael and The Eternal Gospel (killer violin part) so if they and Jurowski were under par in Janáček’s Taras Bulba at the start of the concert, they certainly made up for it later.

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