Alfred Schnittke: Between Two Worlds [LPO/Jurowski – Cello Concerto No.2]

Cello Concerto No.2
The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross

Alexander Ivashkin (cello)

Lisa Milne (soprano), Ruxandra Donose (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Kennedy (tenor) & Christopher Maltman (baritone)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 November, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This concert closed the Between Two Worlds festival focussing on the music of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). Chalk and cheese the programme may have seemed, but it was linked by the superscription of “A Christian composing: faith and death”, in that both Schnittke and Haydn were “strong believers”.

Not surprisingly, Schnittke composed his Cello Concerto No.2 (1990) for Mstislav Rostropovich and it seems both tailor-made for that particular cellist as well as wholly representative of the composer’s psyche, the music’s 35-minute length sustained not only by interesting ideas and powerful emotions but also through the lack of diverse styles that often inform his music. Whether contemplative or combative (usually the latter), the relationship between soloist and orchestra is decidedly tense often spilling-over into a labyrinth of conflict, the argument (literally) sustained to an enigmatic, eerie conclusion by way of a striking trombone-led, chorale lament, an elegy for a lost soul, which followed a particularly harrowing catharsis and reminds of the closing bars of Mahler 6.

In this enormously persuasive performance, Alexander Ivashkin, if maybe not mustering the fullest passion and timbre of Rostropovich, left no doubt as to his belief in the music, eloquent in the slow music, determined in the fast, and alive to the drama of the whole, not least when Schnittke deliberately drowns the soloist out with a full-frontal orchestral assault. The only miscalculation was the harpsichord (one of Schnittke’s trademark bits of scoring), which whether required in the score or not to be amplified, seemed too present in the mix and emerged from centre-top (spectre-like) as opposed to extreme-left where the instrument itself was positioned. Other than that, this performance left a vivid impression, the piece’s intense declamation fully conveyed by Alexander Ivashkin.

Haydn’s very different “Seven Last Words” (given in its fullest version) proved equally compelling, the choir sharing the platform with the orchestra, the four soloists between the two, a performance of real integrity, Vladimir Jurowski pacing perfectly this predominantly slow, often gravely beautiful music, the use of non-vibrato strings (except for solos and in the aid of decoration) adding a terse, authentic edge.

In music that is devotional and refined, Haydn’s patrician skills were always in evidence together with an amiability and a continued penchant to surprise that never allowed sameness to creep in, aided by Jurowski’s excellent judgement and an outstanding response from all the performers, not least the woodwind players, who have a movement to themselves, and Phillip Eastop and Martin Hobbs on natural horns who were sensitive, round of tone and accurate; no mean feat on such potentially troublesome beasts as these.

It was an hour and more before the timpani played and the tempo quickened for the post-crucifixion earthquake, a rattling experience, which up to then had been sacred and devotional, the four solo singers conversational in their contribution, Christopher Maltman finding the lowest of notes with ease.

All in all, a revelation, and good to know that both works were recorded for the LPO’s archives.

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