Humour in Music

Shostakovich
Jazz Suite No.1
King Lear, Op.58 – Ten Songs of the Fool
Mozart
Ein musikalischer Spass, K522
Don Giovanni – Madamina, il catalogo è questo
Le nozze di Figaro – Tutto è disposto
Bastien und Bastienne – Diggi, daggi
Shostakovich
Hypothetically Murdered, Op.31 – Suite [arr. and orch. McBurney]

Alexander Vinogradov (bass)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 February, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Humour in music has not been lacking over the centuries, with the works of two of this year’s anniversary composers, Mozart and Shostakovich, no exception. Yet placing this within the context of a single programme is no easy matter, and it is to Vladimir Jurowski’s credit that he so nearly succeeded here.

He began in understated yet characterful fashion with Shostakovich’s First Jazz Suite (1934), a brief sequence whose sensuous ‘Waltz’, capering ‘Polka’ and bluesy ‘Foxtrot’ are as much about the Russian composer’s response to the stylisation of such set-pieces as their embodiment in an authentic jazz idiom. Great fun, even so, and the London Philharmonic’s wind and brass players (together with what sounded more like a ‘lap steel’ than a Hawaiian guitar!) clearly enjoyed themselves. As a not irrelevant footnote – the ‘real’ Second Jazz Suite (not the so-named suite for cinema orchestra that was arranged by other hands) that partially resurfaced at the Proms some years ago, and has apparently continued to re-emerge since, is even finer musically and would make a great live or recorded addition in this centenary year.

There followed the “Ten Songs of the Fool” that Shostakovich arranged into a self-sufficient sequence from his incidental music to Grigori Kozintsev’s 1941 production of “King Lear”. In a Russian context, ‘fool’ more implies a simpleton touched with divine providence than the anarchic prankster familiar from Western art – although both perspectives are evoked here. Thus while the opening four numbers have a brittle, slapstick quality (did Shostakovich really believe “Jingle Bells” to be an old English folk-tune?), the later songs evince a pathos and equivocation that are anything but ‘funny’. All credit to Alexander Vinogradov for varying his interpretative approach accordingly: moreover, his own certainty convinced one that changing the performance order, so that the sequence ended with the hectic sarcasm of No.9 rather than the enigmatic subtlety of No.10, was viable – at least on this occasion.

Thirty this year, Vinogradov is a singer whose burnished though never over-refined tone and urbane demeanour go a long way to explain his burgeoning reputation in the major opera houses and concert halls. If he has not yet quite the bluff cynicism to bring off Leporello’s “Madamina…” he is a natural for conveying Figaro’s exasperation in “Tutto è disposto”. A brief aria sung by the soothsayer Colas in Mozart’s early ‘singspiel’ “Bastien und Bastienne” unexpectedly but appealingly rounded off Vinogradov’s contribution.

Before it, Jurowski directed the LPO strings – along with two luckless horns – in a reading of A Musical Joke (‘Piss-take’ might be a more accurate translation!) emphasising affectionate humour instead of the keen-edged wit abounding in this misunderstood work: one where ‘deft’ and ‘daft’ are shown to be fully compatible within Mozartian terms. Thus the Minuet and Adagio were a little too measured for their ‘failings’ not to seem predictable, while the outer movements were rumbustious rather than effervescent; the routines of the finale, in particular, need characterising rather more keenly if the music’s two-fingered-ness is fully to make its point.

The concert ended with the concert suite created by Gerard McBurney from the extensive sketches that survive of Shostakovich’s music to the theatre revue “Hypothetically Murdered” (1931). Coming at the end of a period of relatively unfettered expression in Soviet arts, this must have been a provocative show even by the standards of the period: one in which the army and the church, along with other institutions in and out of favour, are sent-up with truly anarchic abandon. Whether this 34-minute sequence would have sounded more coherent ‘in situ’ is thus debatable: as it is, the plethora of often very short movements become harder to distinguish from each other as the suite progresses.

Gerard McBurney alleviates this by placing the final numbers of Act One after those for Acts Two and Three – and the latter, with its insinuating Adagio and saxophone-led number for the Archangel Gabriel (this portion of the revue being set in a determinedly non-divine heaven), is the highpoint. Not that either Jurowski or the LPO sold any of the suite short: indeed, as a viable if highly unlikely ‘concerto for orchestra’, it served as a fine outlet for the orchestra to display a keen virtuosity across all of its sections.

So, an enjoyable and – in the fullest sense – entertaining evening that provided a welcome overview on these composers’ less exalted pursuits, topped off with Shostakovich’s Tahiti Trot (1928): a tribute to the melodic staying power of Vincent Youmans, and to the importance of not always being earnest.

  • Second performance on 17 February at 7.30 – concurrent with this is a broadcast of the first concert on BBC Radio 3!
  • LPO
  • South Bank Centre

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