Alfred Schnittke: Between Two Worlds [LPO/Jurowski – Symphony No.3]

Passacaglia, Op.1
Violin Concerto
Symphony No.3

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 November, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This latest instalment of the London Philharmonic’s Schnittke season again placed a major work by him in the context of the Austro-German heritage to which he was indebted (not always willingly!) in so many particulars. Specifically the Second Viennese School on this occasion, which began with a tensile if over-driven account of Webern’s Passacaglia (1908); one that lacked a sense of inexorable momentum in its closing stages, though the composer’s fastidious use of tone-colour to articulate the music’s formal progress – a major influence on his Russian successor – was vividly conveyed.

Leonidas Kavakos. Photograph: Yannis BourniasBerg’s Violin Concerto (1935) has long been the blueprint for post-Romantic expression. Once again, textural differentiation and tonal shading were much in evidence (rightly so), though this was a performance not necessarily more than the sum of its parts. The initial Andante, in particular, lacked intensity in its unfolding, while the sly folk-music inflections of the Allegretto were tentatively posited in a reading that rushed the final pages. The second half went better – Leonidas Kavakos at one with the orchestra in the Allegro’s intricate accompanied cadenza, for all that the crisis-ridden opening section was a touch inert and balance in the main climax not to the soloist’s advantage. The closing Adagio was finely paced, its Bach allusions pointedly but never too insistently brought out, while the close had a transcendence that the performance as a whole had not necessarily earned.

Between these pieces, Magnus Lindberg’s Chorale (2002) provided a measure of relaxation with its opulently-scored textural contrasts that provided a luxurious context for the same Bach chorale as deployed by Berg, though whether this superior encore touched any greater depths is questionable.

Vladimir Jurowski, dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna. Photograph: Sheila RockSchnittke’s Third Symphony (1981) was the right choice given only one of the composer’s ten such works could be included. Written for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur (who later premiered the Seventh with the New York Philharmonic), this is an avowedly ‘German’ symphony in its stylistic allusions and its inclusiveness of conception. Beginning amorphously (with a likely nod to that of the second movement from Lutosławski’s Second Symphony), the opening Moderato builds through three successive waves of sound that make imaginative use of the large forces. The anxiously Mozartean theme underpinning the Allegro might seem perverse, were it not for Schnittke’s deriving this theme from the generative scale of the first movement; a logical evolution belying the fondly remembered cartoon of the composer eagerly preparing an eclectic recipe from a rack of stylistic containers.

Having taken the first movement a shade too swiftly (the performance as a whole took 47 minutes, slightly under the norm and well below Alexander Ivashkin’s estimation!), before finding the right nervous energy in its successor, Jurowski also had the measure of the third movement – a scherzo whose remorselessly accumulating energy, urged on by manic percussion activity, implodes into glowering unison chords at its apex: from out of which emerges, in true Mahlerian fashion, a full-scale Adagio. In many respects a template, this is less fractious than most of the finales that Schnittke would then write – reviewing elements from what went before with an obliqueness that does not preclude a purposeful evolution across the larger design. Something that Jurowski conveyed with conviction – maintaining inexorable momentum through the morass of intricate detail to a powerful apotheosis, then a B-A-C-H derived flute solo that concluded the work in a mood at once consoling and lamenting.

A work, then, that has lost little of its relevance after almost three decades. More the pity that it appeared not to have been recorded for the LPO label: this is not a symphony over-represented in the catalogue, and an account from this source would certainly have stood high in the Schnittke discography.

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