In concert – Peter Donohoe, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski: Foulds ‘Dynamic Triptych’ & Shostakovich Symphony no.11

Peter Donohoe (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Wednesday 11 December 2019

Foulds Dynamic Triptych (1929)
Shostakovich Symphony no.11 in G minor Op.103 The Year 1905 (1957)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here, though you may wish to skip the interval of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no.8 for continuity.

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Isle of Noises series has attracted – for me at least – some unfair criticism in recent days of the works included in its remit. Granted, the choices are all English, but the composers look beyond these shores with a willingness seemingly out of kilter with the current political climate.

John Foulds is a case in point; a composer who spent the final five years of his life in India before a tragic early death to cholera. Not only did he live in India but he actively explored its musical systems, looking to see how he could incorporate his discoveries and influences into the framework of classical music.

The Dynamic Triptych is a striking example of successful integration. Completed in 1929, its musical language is well beyond its years. In the first movement Foulds becomes obsessed with a modal scale, repeating it over and over rather like Scriabin would do with towers of chords based on intervals of a fourth. The task of playing the modal scales often fell in this performance to the muscular piano part, played with great authority by Peter Donohoe (above). The pianist has spent a great deal of time with this work, recording it with Sakari Oramo and the CBSO in 2006. He led a highly spirited performance, yet despite his brilliant passagework and percussive interventions in the fast music the soul of the work lay in the slow movement.

Here the strings’ quarter tones, beautifully played, brought added mystery to the picture when dressed with evocative percussion, adding to music already in the grip of a poignant sense of loss. Piano and orchestra regrouped for a finale that galloped ahead, Foulds letting the music off the leash to explore more far-flung tonal areas, before a silvery waltz theme was introduced to complement the quickstep. Both fused for a bold and dramatic finale, capping a well-received performance. This was forward looking music of English origin, and not in a 12-tone style either! The LPO should be praised for its inclusion and Vladimir Jurowski, who conducted with characteristic sensitivity, will hopefully explore more of Foulds’ colourful scores in the future.

The colours vanished dramatically after the interval for the opening pages of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11. This performance took on added poignancy with a dedication from Jurowski to Mariss Jansons, sadly departed the previous weekend at the age of 76. Jansons was guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1992 to 1997, and he grew up in St Petersburg, on close personal terms with Shostakovich. The Eleventh Symphony, depicting the slaughter of protestors in the city as part of the Russian Revolution in January 1905, could not have been closer to home.

What a performance it was. For an hour we barely moved as Shostakovich’s first-hand account of the action took hold in vivid, cinematic detail. The icy Palace Square of the city could not have been colder in Jurowski’s hands, with ominous timpani rolls signalling tragedy all too early on. When it came, in the second movement, the massacre was delivered by music of uncompromising and stunning power, the proud brass chorale ultimately shut down by deafening percussion before the door slammed shut. Suddenly the square was silent, save for the strings’ icy tendrils which extended once again towards the audience, noticeably holding its collective breath.

The London Philharmonic were absolutely superb. With 22 cellos and basses playing as one, digging in to the ice as though their lives depended on it, the performance was on sure foundations, above which we had special woodwind contributions, with cor anglais (Sue Bohling) and bass clarinet (Paul Richards) just two of several exceptional solos. The percussionists, a vital cog in the Shostakovich machine, judged their contributions ideally too, with sharp snare drum retorts complemented by rolling bass drum and gong.

Still the tension remained, through an elegiac slow movement where the violas’ melody could not have been more poignantly played by David Quiggle and his section. The dedication to Jansons felt most intense here, and the players were given due acknowledgement by Jurowski in their well-deserved curtain call. Yet despite the deeply personal aspect of the performance there were even sharper parallels with the political climate of today, reminding listeners of the protests in Hong Kong and the forthcoming UK election, not to mention the disinformation, code and discrimination that permeate today’s society at every turn.

This account lived and breathed all of those dreadful things, and as the performance reached its shattering climax with tolling bells, Shostakovich was communicating with ever more piercing clarity. It may not be his most accomplished symphony but the Eleventh is one of his most descriptive and emotive. As Jurowski held the score aloft afterwards it was clear he felt the same – and I for one left reeling at the impact of a memorable performance.

Further listening

This Spotify playlist gives recordings of the Eleventh Symphony from Mariss Jansons himself, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Peter Donohoe with the CBSO under Sakari Oramo in the John Foulds Dynamic Triptych:

You can read a tribute to Mariss Jansons on the London Philharmonic Orchestra website

In honour of Mariss Jansons

Like many lovers of classical music, Arcana was sad to learn of the death of Latvian-Russian conductor Mariss Jansons last weekend, at the age of 76.

Jansons was a great conductor, and I was fortunate enough to see him in a number of concerts. Particularly memorable was a Prom with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Lutosławski‘s Concerto for Orchestra and BrahmsSymphony no.1 – and several years later another outing at the Royal Albert Hall with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Richard Strauss‘s Also Sprach Zarathustra and SibeliusSymphony no.2.

Jansons leaves an extremely strong and varied recorded legacy, from which the playlist below draws a few excerpts. The Lutosławski is included, along with two excellent recordings he made when chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Honegger‘s Symphony no.3 and Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony no.1 (Winter Daydreams).

However a personal favourite, and one I reviewed for Arcana, was his stellar recording of Tchaikovsky‘s Queen of Spades opera, a superb and dramatic account:

These are just hints of what Jansons could do – but show him on his best form. He will be greatly missed.

On record: Mariss Jansons conducts Tchaikovsky: Pique Dame

pique-dame

Although Eugene Onegin may be a more popular opera, Pique Dame is arguably Tchaikovsky’s most accomplished and dramatic achievement in the form.

Here it is presented in a new live recording from BR Klassik, with Misha Didyk playing the role of lovelorn gambler Herman, Tatiana Serjan as his intended Lisa and Larissa Diadkova as the Countess. The Bavarian State Opera Choir and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are the massed forces.

What’s the music like?

The music shows just how spontaneous the composition of this opera was, Tchaikovsky finishing the entire work in six weeks with the help of a libretto from his brother Modest. In addition the plot and its execution become more dramatic as they progress, leading to the white hot intensity of the final act.

By this time Tchaikovsky’s music has darkened, moving on from a style that benefits from classical influences to one that bares its truly Russian soul. The darker colours that infuse orchestral works such as the Symphony no.5 are fully in evidence, and the writing for voices is at times sumptuous but also of a searing intensity.

Does it all work?

Emphatically, yes. This is a superb live performance from Jansons and his forces that is truly electric in the third act. Misha Didyk of Herman has admirable stamina in a demanding role that calls for him to sing in a wide range throughout, and his voice penetrates every scene in which he is present.

While Tatiana Serjan is also superb as Lisa, the chilling revelation of the ‘secret cards’ from the ghost of the Countess (Larissa Diadkova) lingers long in the memory, by which time Jansons has taken a fearsome grip on the opera.

Support from the chorus and orchestra is exemplary, the offstage choir towards the end of the scene in Herman’s quarter of the barracks a particularly magical moment.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Even to someone who does not listen to a great deal of opera on record, this particular Pique Dame is a wholly compelling experience.

Listen on Spotify

If you do not have Spotify you can listen to clips from the recording on the Presto website. If you do have Spotify however, the opera can be heard here: