Jeu de cartes
14 ‘Goldberg’ Canons, BWV1087 [arr. F. Goldmann; UK premiere]
Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’
Steven Isserlis (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 12 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
It was going to be something special: not only a classic Vladimir Jurowski programme, but his last as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic. Add in the spotlight of the Proms and – to top it all – after the music was done a well-deserved presentation. With cheers and tumultuous applause still filling the Royal Albert Hall, John Gilhooly – Chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society – delivered a wonderful citation about Jurowski’s British career – OAE and Glyndebourne, but most especially the London Philharmonic. Even though Covid restrictions meant that he couldn’t actually present the RPS gold medal that he held out for Prommers to see, after he had left Jurowski did admit he was breaking those same restrictions by shouting a thank-you into the same microphone.
That topped a thrilling Prom which encompassed the 50th anniversary of Stravinsky’s death, and the Proms’ theme of the influence of historical borrowings on music. Three mid-20th-century scores (from 1933 to 1956) – all three occasional pieces at the Proms – were joined by a late-20th-century orchestration of a recently discovered Bach piece, receiving its UK premiere.
The Prom was book-ended by two stage-influenced works from the early 1930s. Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes for Balanchine was obviously dear to Stravinsky’s heart as he conceived the scenario himself (rejecting Balanchine’s suggestion of using a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale). You might say he dealt his own hand, with the subtitle ‘a ballet in three deals.’ Each deal is prefaced by a brass heavy introduction, bold and clear under Jurowski’s typically vibrant direction, with his whip-crack beat. Wind solos jumped out, and there was musical wit aplenty, even if the Tchaikovsky and, later, Rossini, allusions passed me by, given the sonic cornucopia enhanced by the largest orchestra yet seen this season. Although only four were listed, the string section was built from six double basses rising to 12 first violins.
Hindemith’s Symphony: Mathis der Maler also benefitted from the weightier orchestral sound. Hindemith’s musical reference was to his own opera of the same name based on the life of 16th-century painter Matthias Grünewald. Less playful than Stravinsky’s slightly later ballet score, as if hewn out of contrapuntal granite, but Jurowski understands its logic and proves its symphonic credentials. Thrilling.
And yet, perhaps it was the two central works that were the most engrossing. Even in a week that started with Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Steven Isserlis’s performance of Walton’s took the crown. The Cinderella of Walton’s concertos, it is subtle and often reflective, with a magical opening movement, chimed percussion cushioning the soloist’s utterly ravishing themes, which Isserlis caressed lovingly. Contrast is delivered in the frenetic Adagio appassionato, while the long Finale is sectional. including two improvisatory cadenzas, leading to the original 1956 ending in this performance (there is a1970s rewrite including two loud orchestral bars before the ending), which dies away like an exhausted sigh. Isserlis’s total involvement, including a tapping left foot adding to the percussion section ad lib, was matched by Jurowski and his players. Utterly spell-binding. Returning again and again to take a bow, Isserlis eventually surprised the audience with a strummed and pizzicato encore of bewildering speed and dexterity: Sulkhan Tsintsade’s virtuosic Chonguri.
The remaining piece, which opened the second half, drastically reduced the orchestra, with the addition of a very subtly amplified harpsichord. The story of the discovery of only the 19th extant first printing of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations in France in 1975 containing a set of 14 additional canons in Bach’s hand is a fascinating one. Those 14 canons, as orchestrated by Friedrich Goldmann two years later, received their UK premiere.
The first four canons (built from the first eight bars of the Goldberg’s bass line) are for horn duo, the remaining ten for combinations of the small ensemble, sonorous and witty by turns, the tenth (I think) particularly featuring the harpsichord. The changing orchestral palette was utterly engrossing, and the whole effect was one of timeless musical invention.