London Philharmonic/Jurowski – Flight from Byzantium … The Miraculous Mandarin

Symphony No.63 in C (La Roxelane) [first version]
Flight from Byzantium [London Philharmonic / Orchestra Giovanile Italiana co-commission: world premiere]
Moribus et genere; Vergene bella; Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae
The Miraculous Mandarin

Omar Ebrahim (narrator)

The Hilliard Ensemble

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 25 September, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vladimir Jurowski. Photograph: Roman GontcharovA meeting of east and west was envisaged in this programme given by the London Philharmonic and the Hilliard Ensemble, which turned out to be even stranger than it looked on paper. Byzantium, Constantinople and its modern day incarnation, Turkey, served here as the junction of cultures; for Haydn it was the home of the exotic, for Dufay it was the source of bad news and for Joseph Brodsky (via Matteo D’Amico) it represented the point at which Christianity and Islam eyeballed each other across the Bosphorus. Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin upset the thematic elegance, however, by casting the net too far east.

An orchestra of reduced personnel gave a swift and historically aware performance of Haydn’s Symphony 63, this first version of which recycled incidental music for “Solimann II, oder Die drei Sultanninen” of 1777. The late Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon reconstructed this early version of the symphony from the incidental music, now known by the name of the heroine of “Solimann”, Roxelane. Jurowski led a lively account of the four-movement work which featured reduced vibrato from the strings, and natural horns and trumpets. While the orchestra’s approach was pleasingly alert in the outer movement, the second movement lacked the charm it might have had, and the appeal of the natural brass was offset by a number of mistakes from the horns. That said, it was a pleasure to hear this foray into repertoire too often neglected by London’s orchestras.

Lasting substantially longer than the advertised 23 minutes, Matteo D’Amico’s “Flight from Byzantium” is a reasonably effective setting of spoken prose and sung poetry by Russian Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky. A large orchestra is called for, augmented by the lute-like oud, the blown duduk, the four members of the Hilliard Ensemble and a seated narrator. Singer Omar Ebrahim spoke extracts from Brodsky’s 1985 New Yorker essay which protectively examines the clash of Christianity and Islam though the prism of Turkish history. It is far more relevant today than Brodsky could have anticipated and is the most interesting element of D’Amico’s cantata. Brodsky’s Russian “Nativity Poems” are set for vocal quartet and are full of wonderful images, but keeping up with the overlapping (English) narration inevitably meant losing the thread of the poems, translated via surtitles into English. D’Amico’s musical accompaniment resists overwhelming the spoken and sung vocals, despite the large orchestra, but it too often feels superfluous, and while occasionally illustrating the spoken text with admirable subtlety, it often merely chatters behind the narration without a the sense of direction. The work was here further hindered by poor amplification which fed all of the amplified elements though one cluster of loudspeakers high above the stage.

After the interval, two motets and one devotional song by Guillaume Dufay brought the Hilliard Ensemble back, this time alone, and this fifteenth-century Frenchman’s music was linked to the rest of the programme by the last item in the set. This lament for the fall of Constantinople in 1453 certainly had a thematic relevance, but the choice of these pieces seemed entirely wrong for the Royal Festival Hall’s dry acoustic. Its unforgiving space only highlighted the weaknesses of the Hilliard Ensemble’s tuning, which would have been far better served by the religious spaces for which these settings would have been originally intended. Their inclusion here may have appealed on paper, but in practice they seemed an indulgence on behalf of the programmers.

Bartok’s grisly ballet The Miraculous Mandarin was only tenuously connected to the preceding music, but it was the most satisfying item of the evening. Its story rivals Bartók’s opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” in its pessimistic view of male/female relations, and it has moments of the same anguished world-weariness, which were particularly finely captured by the LPO’s first violins. What must be one of the most horrible stories in the ballet repertoire was helpfully relayed via surtitles throughout this complete performance. Jurowski’s direction was reasonably understated in the work’s first half, but it became clear that he was building towards the appearance of the mandarin, whose entrance was suitably unnerving and whose glowing state was excellently illustrated by the brief contribution from the London Philharmonic Choir.

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