Vaughan Williams: Symphony No 8; Turnage; Ligeti; Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Christian Tetzlaff; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall, 28 September 2008 4 stars

Vladimir JurowskiThe LPO and their principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski began their new season on Tuesday at the Royal Festival Hall with an eccentric concert full of odd juxtapositions and unexpected twists and turns. But despite the unconventional programming, it was in fact the style and tactics of the interpretations that were mainly at the root of this impression.

The two pairings - of Vaughan Williams and Mark-Anthony Turnage in the first half, and Ligeti and Stravinsky in the second - actually proved apposite, with the unusually acerbic (at times) Eight Symphony of Vaughan Williams proving a reasonably sympathetic partner for Turnage's focused and forceful new violin concerto.

Atmosphères and The Rite, meanwhile, are cousins in musical revolution, and Jurowski's decision to play them as one without a break was bold, invigorating, and compelling.

The evening was dominated by the conductor's thrilling reading of Stravinsky's masterpiece. Jurowski brought a measure and exactitude to the piece, combined with an incredibly swift pace, that made one hear the work anew, as if it were being recomposed before our very eyes. It takes a rare talent to make such a mainstay of the repertoire appear fresh, and it is fast becoming clear that the young Russian is maturing into a confident and courageous artist- but more of that anon.

Preceding Stravinsky's Rite was a performance of Ligeti's groundbreaking exploration of micropolyphony (as a sort of proto-hyperminimalism) that did justice to the spirit of the work, insofar as it made us alive to what was at the time a new idea of the orchestra as a sound-producing device. The calm and tense clusters of the opening-so evocative and yet so modest; the bare tension derived simply from the concentrated contrast of registers between piccolos and low strings in the middle; the swirling wind and string clouds of sound towards the end- all these appeared as they should, as intensely nuanced crucibles of colour where sound was finally being liberated from its dour anchorage in theory. The piece ends with two musicians gently caressing with brushes the strings of a grand piano- a gesture consistent with the work's reconfiguration of orchestral sound- but alas one that is too often simply inaudible, as it was here (albeit fifteen or so rows from the stage).

But in the event this inaudibility was to prove serendipitous. Just as the audience was concentrating its hardest on the lack of sound coming from the stage, its ears were filled with the utterly distinctive strains of the bassoon solo from the opening of Stravinsky's Rite. Before we knew it we were into a whole new world of exploratory sound, one just as rhythmically fresh in its own way as the Ligeti. The audience's clear delight at the conductor's elegant conceit was carried along gracefully in the wash of confident solos (especially the wind section), finely honed polyrhythms, and almost bewildering sense of collective purpose of ensemble that followed. This was an urgent interpretation: every tiny detail of the score was judiciously attended to, and Jurowski's command over the orchestra was Boulezian (though the younger man is much more demonstrative). Some of his decisions paid handsome dividends, for example the tapering back of the string sound in the Auguries of Spring section, and elsewhere, so the thunderous kettle and bass drums could brashly appear at the foreground of the sound. The score has in fact rarely sounded so quietly menacing, and so full of pent-up force (which was duly expended, often, by the pin sharp percussionists). The obscure, caustic recalls of the earlier material in the latter sections were devastating, as was the fierce climax.

Christian TetzlaffThe first half of the concert was much less revelatory than the second, as it turned out, though it had its share of interesting moments. The opening work, Vaughan Williams' Eighth Symphony, showed itself in this case to be an unusual beast, full of paradox. The opening movement is formally creative- as its creator stated it is a ‘set of variations without a theme' though in reality the basis of the thematic working is a group of three plastic themes given at the outset. But apart from the interesting flowing motion the material generates and the shimmering scoring of the opening, there is little to set the movement apart from standard early twentieth century orchestral fare. A clearly Shostakovichian scherzo for the winds follows where the restive quality of the music impresses as it goes, but does little to prepare the ground for the rather beautiful Cavatina for strings that follows. The work concludes with a Toccata that is full of modal, pentatonic flavourings akin to Aaron Copland, with the dominant feel of D major resolving, ever so awkwardly, the D minor of the opening movement. The performance was solid - the focused ensemble playing that was to be in such strong evidence later was apparent from the fertile opening section of the first movement, but Jurowski never managed to wrestle the work's curious shape into a coherent whole. The lack of fluency in the material ultimately compromised any fleeting moments of clarity, and beauty, that appeared from time to time.

Mark-Anthony Turnage's new violin concerto Mambo, Blues and Tarantella, written for Christian Tetzlaff, received its premiere at this concert with a well-received and confident performance. Like the composer's other scores, this piece works from a wide stylistic base that incorporates jazz voicing, rhythms and phrasing, folk dance forms, and coruscating, modernistic gestures and flavours. Yet this wide range of references never feels paradoxical- there is no stand off between natural and synthetic forms, but rather all the various energies of the piece commingle to produce a poised, fervent, and highly emotive worldly sound. Across the self-explanatory three movements the composer works up a tense dialogue between soloist and orchestra that is cleverly proportioned both in terms of scoring (usually only low instruments accompany the violin in order to aid audibility) and weight (each dance/musical form, through elastic treatment, moves swiftly into the next before complacency can set in). There is little flab in this score; it is one of Turnage's most urgent yet. If at times it feels a little insubstantial, then the sheer force and economy of the writing more than compensate for this. The LPO's performance was tight, explosive and showy, and the fluid exchanges between Tetzlaff and Jurowski were always highly engaging. The soloist shone throughout, in fact, with his grasp of the idiom in the sliding lines of the second movement, his intricate and moving cadenza, and his restlessly sprung rhythms in the finale all making for a fascinatingly emotional presence at the heart of this invigorating performance.

By Stephen Graham