Jurowski and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester at London's Barbican

A truly superb concert

Jurowski and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester at London's Barbican
Photo © Mark Allan / Barbican

Poleva, Berg, R. Strauss Vilde Frang (violin); Bayerisches Staatsochester / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Barbican Hall, 18.09.2023

Victoria Poleva Symphony No. 3, White Interment (UK premiere: 2002)

Berg      Violin Concerto (1935)

R. Strauss   Eine Alpensinfonie, Op,64 (1915)

In the first of two programmes in its London leg of its 500th (!) anniversary, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester (Bavarian State Orchestra) offered a Ukrainian UK premiere and the coupling of two 2oth-century masterpieces – the Berg Violin Concerto and Strauss’ Alpensinfonie. Only two stops remain at the time of writing: Linz (Brucknerfest, September 22, - although bizarrrely it was Lucerne and Meran that received Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony: Linz gets Mahler 4) and finally, om Saturday, the Konzerthaus in Vienna. The orchestra visited Paris (Théâtre des Champs-Elysées) on September 21.

The concert began with Victoria Poleva’s Symphony No. 3, which is also known as White Interment. It was originally written in 2002 for oboe and strings and known just as White Interment; it its full orchestral garb it becomes her Third Symphony. The ‘whiteness’ is that of snow, and the rhythms are based on those of the verbal pharse ‘teper’ vsegda snega” - ‘snow, always snow’. The concert notes tell us that it invokes the feeling of “being trapped in an icy prison. succumbing to sleep as the surrounding space implodes”. Compositionally, Poleva uses techniques such as ‘circulatio’ (circle), catabosis (descent) and anabosis (ascent), plus ‘aposiopesis’ (concealment – a general pause that is intended to depict death and eternity). Lots of ambition to the background ideas, then, but the actual result was perhaps a touch less impressive. Poleva certainly creates a blanched out timbral space, and the sound is certainly lovely, and on an initial level, touching. More, Jurowski made the music breathe – one could hear extended, composed, inhalations and exhalations. Poleva could not have asked for a finer performance: everything was balanced to the nth degree, the trumpet cutting through with one of those descents.

Those enumerations of technique: circular, ascent, descent – do rather describe the very basics of musical expression, though, and after a while it rather felt that the piece was living on texture alone. The shadow of Valentyn Silvestrov, too, seems ever near.

Here’s a performance of the original symphony (with a Sleeping Beauty graphic!):

Vllde Frang

Violinist Vilde Frang never fails to impress, whether with this orchestra in Shostakovich (under Rafael Payaré) or in Bartók under the present conductor, Jurowski (but with the Berlin RSO: review). Here she was in Berg’s powerful Violin Concerto, a piece that encompasses the bleakest darkness and the most radiant light. Frang brought a real delicacy to her reading of this piece – the blossoming of the chorale in winds towards the end felt like the parting of a curtain to another world. Frang takes a predominantly lyrical approach to this most lyrical of members of the Second Viennese School; and which orchestra is better qualified to create a velvety bed of sound at the opening than the Bavarians? The combination of their baseline warmth with Jurowski’s keen ear for detail and clear ability to impart discipline was an ideal mix, and Frang the ideal choice of solois. There have been more overtly powerful performances, but few that whispered into our ears – and souls – like this one. How keenly Juroswki differentiated between Haupt- and Nebenstimmen (prncipal and secondary lines, hotated inteh score by Berg with an "H' and and "N"); how charmingly both Jurowski and Frang made the music dance, highlighting the folkish quotations. Jurowski also took pains to remind us that there is a saxophone in the line-up, taking reminding us of the proximity of the world of Berg’s second opera, Lulu. The more muscular second movement still carried plenty of heft, while the Hauptrhythmus (a rhythm treated as a theme, basically) was powerfully projected by both orchestra and unforgettably at one point, by Frang (with massively clear pizzicatos as part of the equation). Most of all, though, the performance worked because of the sense of profound peace at the close. Superb.

Previously on Classical Explorer, we considered Frang’s excellent coupling of Strabvinsky and Beethoven Violin Concertos here.

It was Richard Strauss’ huge Alpensinfonie that took up the second half in a faultless performance. Jurowski knows this score inside out, and how it showed in the myriad details we heard. High strings were preternaturally together, brass magnificent, each and every one. Jurowski’s was no stroll up the mountain – this was a bracing ascent, but never a rushed one. Ther was certainly no missing the glittering waterfall, or the power of horns in the big theme. Complex textures were deconstructed in front of us with X-Ray precision, and yet held their place perfectly within the whole. Just one tiny complaint – the ‘offstage’ horns were indeed behind the stage (behind one of the ‘windows’ - panels - at the back of the stage that opens up) but there was little sense of distance.

In the grand scheme of things, that’s a minor caveat for a performance that was thrusting, heroic and wholly impressive. It was as if the might of the mountain was preserved in sound. Performances of the Alpine Symphony do come in concertgoers’ paths occasionally (and how the piece suited the Royal Albert Hall when Bychkov brought it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, coupled with Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder and the UK premiere of Thomas Larcher’s Second Symphony, as part of the 2016 Proms: review). But personally, I find it impossible to imagine any that will eclipse the Bavarians after this evening.

The reference to that earlier Proms performance is perhaps germane as that programme included Wagner. So did this one, but in encore format – an exquisitely crafted Mesistersinger Act III Prelude. Perfect for this orchestra in terms of sound world, and perfect in its profoundly contented stillness.