Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op.43 [Overture and selections]
Mar’eh [Co-commissioned by Lucerne Festival, Alte Oper Frankfurt & London Philharmonic Orchestra: UK premiere]
Prometheus (Poem of Fire), Op.60
Julia Fischer (violin)
Igor Levit (piano)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Lucy Carter (lighting designer: Scriabin)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 24 September, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The London Philharmonic and Vladimir Jurowski set the Royal Festival Hall ablaze during this concert, Prometheus the perpetrator. He stole fire from the Gods. Not that Beethoven’s ballet music crackles, for although attractive, not least the familiar Overture, here fleet but unfailingly articulate, this Terpsichorean assortment, however persuasively played, proved no more than window-dressing to the Prometheus pyrotechnics to come from Liszt and Scriabin. Jurowski’s choices (the Overture plus six further numbers from Beethoven’s sixteen) were sometimes of undistinguished pieces, although the extended better-quality Adagio (No.5) that includes numerous woodwinds solos, and one for cello, was outstandingly brought off in its lyricism and pathos. Beethoven’s use of harp and basset clarinet is interesting – there is no precedent and no return for this composer – while the ‘Finale’ uses a tune that Beethoven would exploit again in his Opus 35 for-piano Eroica Variations (opus numbers and chronology do not correspond) and once more in the ‘Eroica’ Symphony. But this tended to be a tedious 32 minutes’ worth despite the splendid ensemble-playing, eloquent solos, and Simon Carrington’s crisp attack on ‘authentic’ timpani.
Prometheus was rarely suggested in Beethoven’s score – just a name appended to Classical ideals – and he played no part whatsoever in the ‘violin concerto’ by Matthias Pintscher. Mar’eh (2011) is written “in memory of Luigi Nono and for Julia Fischer”. Mar’eh is the Hebrew word for ‘face’ or ‘sign’; Pintscher goes further and suggests it as “a beautiful vision”. For the most part Mar’eh is a meditative work, adagio and pianissimo, the orchestra at full strength, not least in the percussion department, enough to ensure a huge printed score for the conductor and two music-stands for the soloist to arrange the pages containing the continuous writing for violin, which steals in at the beginning and is essentially an expressive commentator throughout. Pintscher’s painstaking scoring, mosaic-like, is carefully graded with plenty of effects, too many maybe, for the ear can be diverted away from the violinist’s contemplations, and many of the orchestra’s offerings are now familiar enough to be thought of as clichés if not the mellifluous contribution on horn and a mesmeric one from cor anglais. A flurry of activity and a dynamic swelling to fortissimo (Fischer employing Bartókian quarter-tones) arrived when the piece was just over halfway through – well-timed – and this constantly eventful work sustained its 24 minutes sufficiently well, the ‘electronic’ soundworld achieved entirely through acoustic means and being likened by one (overheard) listener as akin to a score for a Hitchcock film. However any one person perceived Pintscher’s intentions, Mar’eh certainly intrigued and compelled. The performance seemed outstanding, not least from the poised and intimate Fischer, and thoroughly well-prepared to match the composer’s ultra-precise notation; indeed these very artists had given the world premiere just a fortnight earlier at the Lucerne Festival.
With the concert’s second half we got much nearer to the Prometheus Legend with music of specific description and advancement, the members of the London Philharmonic now smart-casually dressed in white (shirts and tops) and black, the Scriabin-waiting London Philharmonic Choir identically fashionable. Liszt’s symphonic poem (5/13) is an over-in-a-flash gem. Loosely constructed it seems to be, but from its opening doom-laden warning an enthralling alchemy and alluring emotionalism emerges; the use of a fugue seems too academic at first but Liszt had a knack of taking formalism and turning it to his diabolical advantage.
With his take on Prometheus (1908-10), Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) created something timelessly modern in effect. In this performance an attempt was made to include his ‘light keyboard’, something written into the score to create a visual background of slow-changing colours and a foreground rapidity of variegation. Such ‘enhancement’ (if it be so) was not attempted during the composer’s lifetime (although the music as such was performed, under Koussevitzky in Moscow) and rarely since his death. Lucy Carter had a good go, lighting the hall in different hues – a Twilight Zone – and flashing cubist designs onto the ceiling, sort of Star Trek or hovering UFOs. Just how such synaesthesia correlated to the music wasn’t easy to define, although one did feel to be in ‘another place’ at times, but probably best to accept the lighting’s spirit rather than its specifics for the music is so ecstatic, spectral, erotic, voluptuous and perfumed that all suggestions are in there somewhere. The orchestra is large, not least in the brass, and demands a full string section in response, here 68 in number (16:16:14:12:10). Balance was impeccable throughout. The piano represents Man. It is an obbligato role, the instrument here in front of the conductor and placed in the body of the strings. Igor Levit gave an ideal performance, full of personality while emerging from within the cosmos that is the orchestra. Jurowski judged the trajectory of the piece to the sublime exclamation of the entry of the wordless chorus and the organ, the lighting reaching a coup de théâtre in its white brilliance, the music orgasmic when arriving at its loud and long final chord. Over 26 minutes this was a sizzling and stunning performance.