London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski – An Autumn Symphony

Julia Fischer (violin, below), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (above)

Royal Festival Hall, London, Wednesday 29 November 2017

Chausson Poème, Op. 25 (1896)

Respighi Poema autunnale, P146 (1925)

Marx Eine Herbstsymphonie (1921) [UK premiere]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Vladimir Jurowski continues to ring the changes in terms of repertoire, with this evening’s concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra no exception in featuring the UK premiere of Eine Herbstsymphonie, the most ambitious undertaking from Austrian composer Joseph Marx.

Although best remembered for his substantial output of songs, Marx (1882-1964) spent the decade after the First World War essaying large-scale orchestral works – chief among them being this Autumn Symphony premiered (by Felix Weingartner) in Vienna during 1922 but which went unheard as a complete entity for eight decades after its 1925 revival. Marrying impressionistic harmonies to a Mahlerian formal expansiveness, this is an evocation of its season both in descriptive and philosophical terms – in music as opulent as it is engulfing.

What it lacks is any sense of a cumulative or even over-arching momentum. Sizable forces are deployed expertly if amorphously in terms of the dense yet unvarying texture – though this was hardly the fault of the LPO, which responded to Jurowski’s incisive direction with assurance. Not least in the radiant Autumn Song – less a movement then a prelude to what follows and segueing into Dance of the Noon Spirits, an extensive intermezzo that suffers from its overly uniform waltz-time measure and corresponding lack of rhythmic contrast.

This latter failing is hardly an issue in Autumn Thoughts, a slow movement where serenely unfolding paragraphs and taciturn solos for wind and strings effect a yearning regret such as draws in the listener whatever its lack of defined melodies. After which, An Autumn Poem provides a finale of Dionysian import – the full orchestra (nine percussionists in addition to timpani and keyboards) moving through a series of increasingly heady climaxes before the music subsides into a postlude suffused with eloquent resignation though tinged by regret.

A significant work historically, then, but hardly a neglected masterpiece that warrants regular revival. Jurowski can only be commended for instigating this performance, as for encouraging so committed an orchestral response as will hopefully find its way onto the LPO’s own label.

Even so, it was the first half that brought greater rewards. With its inspiration in a typically melodramatic story from Ivan Turgenev and breathing an aura of fatalistic dread, Chausson’s Poème has made a welcome return to the repertoire and has also found its ideal exponent in Julia Fischer – her warm and caressing though never over-wrought tone teasing out those expressive nuances which lurk beneath the surface of this emotionally all-enveloping score. Whatever else, its composer experienced the essential qualities of his music in graphic terms.

Latter-day revivals have tended to pair this piece with Ravel’s jarringly contrasted Tzigane, but Fischer choice was far more apposite. Even more overlooked, Respighi’s Autumn Poem itself pursues a full-circle trajectory such as takes in reflection and animation, though one whose overall conciseness proves its own justification. Fischer duly spun the deftest of solo lines through the diaphanous and modally-inflected orchestral texture, in which Jurowski’s accompaniment was astute and affecting in equal measure. Sometimes, less really is more.

Julia Fischer & Igor Levit – Beethoven at Wigmore Hall


Richard Whitehouse on a complete cycle of Beethoven’s Sonatas for piano and violin given at the Wigmore Hall over three nights, from Monday 4 – Wednesday 6 July

Monday 4th – Sonatas Op.12 nos.1-3 (1797-8); A minor, Op.24 (1800)

Tuesday 5th – Sonatas in F, Op. 25, ‘Spring’ (1800-1); Op.30 nos.1-3 (1801-2)

Wednesday 6th – Sonatas in A, Op. 47, ‘Kreutzer’ (1802-3); in G, Op. 96 (1812)

Julia Fischer (violin), Igor Levit (piano)

Unlike his symphonies, string quartets or piano sonatas, Beethoven’s violin sonatas cannot be taken as representative of his output as a whole. The first nine were written in barely six years up to the threshold of the composer’s second period, whose ending is duly marked by his final such work. The cycle nevertheless makes for an ideal mini-series as is frequently encountered, with the present one – spread plausibly yet unequally over three recitals – from Julian Fischer and Igor Levit having already been heard in Munich, Berlin, Zurich and Paris.

A violinist who has few equals for consistency of line, with a pianist of abundant insight over a broad repertoire, promised much for this traversal and so it proved – whether in the robust expressive contrasts of the Op. 12 trilogy, the more pronounced differences between those of Opp. 24 and 25, the almost perfect balance that prevails between the widely varied threesome of Op. 30, then the virtuosity and high-flown rhetoric of Op. 47; with the formal subtlety and emotional restraint of Op. 96 at far more of a remove than its temporal distance might suggest.

One of the chief attractions of such a cycle is hearing pieces that rarely surface independently in recital. Hence the Sonata in A which forms an unobtrusive centrepiece to the Op. 12 set, its elegant intermezzo-like Andante preceded by an Allegro whose waltz-like insouciance amply complemented the drily humorous finale. Arguably a little too knowing here, Fischer sounded more at ease with the Sonata in D – not least its questing initial Allegro and tonally deceptive finale, though the central variations felt a little over-calculated for their poise fully to register.

The Sonata in E flat brought out the best in this partnership, Levit pointing up the emotional breadth of the opening Allegro as surely as Fischer maintained the unbroken melodic span of its Adagio, before the duo laid on the rhetoric of the combative finale. Hardly less impressive was the Sonata in A minor – its coursing initial Presto unfolded with propulsive energy, then its successor duly emerging as a quixotic amalgam of slow movement and scherzo such as is offset by a finale whose restless modulations anticipate Schumann, Brahms and even Reger.

Opening the second recital, the ‘Spring’ Sonata presented less of an expressive contrast than expected – not least as Fischer downplayed the Schubertian elegance of its initial Allegro as surely as the Mendelssohnian sentiment of its Adagio. The brief Scherzo was wittiness itself, even if the finale’s easefulness felt a little matter of fact. Not so the Sonata in A that launches the Op. 30 set, the airy lyricism of its Allegro a deft foil to the searching Adagio that may be Beethoven’s most elusive such movement, with the final variations having minx-like charm.

The Sonata in C minor inevitably dominated this sequence, its initial Allegro of an expressive vehemence comparable to its formal ingenuity then the Adagio with a simmering tension that burst forth in the stark coda. Levit made play with the Scherzo’s fractious piano part, while it was Fischer who took the lead in a final Allegro of an energy purposefully held in check until its coruscating coda. Not that the Sonata in G was unduly anti-climactic: the knowingness of its minuet manqué a telling foil to those respectively tensile and deadpan Allegro’s either side.

The final recital comprised the last two sonatas in a short measure yet ideally complementary programme. Too often an exercise in rhetorical overkill, the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata was notable for an unusually close-knit integration of the first movement’s Presto with its Adagio introduction – opening-out without dissipating its driving impetus, then the Andante’s eloquent variations building to a searching coda. The final Presto capped the whole with fine style, its underlying tarantella replete with a teasing archness and sufficient pathos to make it a fitting conclusion.

Nine years on and the Sonata in G closes Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ second period with a poise at times verging on the ethereal. Fischer and Levit amply evoked such a quality in the unhurried opening Allegro, its trills and arpeggios as whimsical as they were profound, then the Adagio plumbed depths as were deftly offset on seguing into the Scherzo with its terse rhythmic gait and winsome trio. If the final Allegro felt at all uneventful, the inwardness and decisiveness of its closing two variations were tellingly conveyed as the work (and the cycle) neared its end.

And that was it – with, as in the previous two recitals, no room for encores or for Beethoven’s relatively minor sundry pieces for violin and piano. No matter, this was an impressive as well as an absorbing traversal – not least for its underlining those collaborative strengths as makes the Fischer/Levit duo a potent one. Hopefully it will be taking this music into the studio at the earliest opportunity, so leaving a permanent record of three evenings as amply reinforced the strengths of what remains the most significant contribution to its genre over two centuries on.

You can read Arcana’s interview with Tasmin Little about the Beethoven sonatas here