Once upon a time concerts were all about sound, their aspiration to theatre extending no further than the residual pleasure of watching musicians ply their trade. The visual rot set in when the first amateur choir added hand-jives and dad-dancing to its songs; then along came technology to open a host of 'can-do' doors for people with more IT savvy than creative sense. Now that the London Philharmonic Orchestra, that bastion of excellence and good taste, has opted to add electronic retinal distraction to its presentations, it is time to wave the white flag.
Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970), whose epic opera Die Soldaten can stretch the bravest opera company to its limits, injected so much natural theatre into Ekklesiastische Aktion (Ecclesiastical Action) – foot-stamping soloists, newspaper-ripping percussionists, even a star-jumping conductor (although Vladimir Jurowski confined himself to sticking his arms out before squatting down on the podium) – that director Annabel Arden's video-led accretions were superfluous. Worse, the attendant need for dimmed lighting and illuminated music-stands diluted the pure communicative power of a composition that needs no help from outside forces in order to overwhelm.
Zimmermann elaborates a passage from Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov in which the Grand Inquisitor interrogates a returned Christ in his cell and berates him for granting humanity the free will that it has so roundly abused. Zimmermann completed Ekklesiastische Aktion in August 1970 and killed himself five days later – a fact that adds a devastating dimension to the climax, its brief quotation from Bach's harmonisation of the Lutheran chorale 'Es ist genug' played on savage brass and viciously truncated in mid-flow. This is the same music alluded to by Berg in his Violin Concerto, but here it's as if the composer's suicide were a coda to the work itself.
Over 35 minutes, Jurowski's performance made coherent sense of the wild score and the immediacy of the LPO's playing, with brass and percussion to the fore, was electric. It would be hard, too, to improve on the exemplary trio of soloists. Dietrich Henschel, trussed though he was in a lounge suit and tie, not only sang (in German) but stamped, gestured and ululated with melismatic abandon, while two actors delivered the spoken narration (in English) in incisively contrasting styles. Omar Ebrahim undertook the rhetorical declamation while Malcolm Sinclair handled the more nuanced and conversational material, albeit apostrophised by chordal punches from the orchestra. Both were outstanding.
All the gizmos were packed away after the interval with the exception of a projector that distracted the audience with illuminated surtitles throughout Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. It is hard to see why these were deemed necessary when texts and translations had been clearly printed in the programme. Their first appearance detracted from Jurowski's exquisitely judged opening to 'Selig sind, die la Leid tragen' and prevented the listener from communing with Brahms's great synthesis of words and music. With music-making of such rarefied splendour as the LPO forces provided, no-one needed to be stabbed in the eyes by a strip of PowerPoint.
The LPO strings, starved on meagre rations in the Zimmermann, revelled in Brahms's grateful lines. The aural blend was ideal and the fusion of choir and orchestra tremendously moving. Jurowski had configured the platform in layers of depth rather than breadth, with antiphonal violins to the fore and double basses arrayed centrally behind the woodwinds, and with Miah Persson's golden soprano contribution in the fifth movement, 'Ihr habt nun Trauigkeit', sung from the organ console. This attention to the sonic perspective was at one with the conductor's interpretation: always probing and disciplined, never expansive. Jurowski’s lean, controlled reading allowed no trace of sentimentality to coarsen the haunting orchestral passage that underpins 'Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras', that lullaby of loss with its ominous recurring timpani figure.
The performance was fervent. After his eloquent third-movement prayer, 'Herr, lehre doch mich', Henschel sat back in his chair, spent, while the Choir delivered a great account of the Bachian fugue with its barely-resolved conclusion. What a fine body the London Philharmonic Choir is under Neville Creed's direction! With a professionalism that made a mockery of their amateur status the hundred-and-sixty responsive choristers shrugged off the exhaustion of an hour's sustained singing and purred through Brahms's finale 'Selig sind die Toten', making light of the tuning challenges it presents both internally and with the orchestra. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.