The Divine Poem: Knussen, Sibelius & Scriabin

The Divine Poem: Knussen, Sibelius & Scriabin
London Philharmonic Orchestra,
Vladimir Jurowski
 conductor, Leonidas Kavakos violin
Royal Festival Hall, 3 October 2015

Oliver Knussen: Scriabin settings for chamber orchestra
Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Alexander Scriabin: Symphony No.3 in C (The Divine Poem)

In a cleverly designed programme featuring two of this year’s anniversary composers, we had the chance to compare the music of Sibelius and Scriabin, born just seven years later. The contrast between the two could not have been greater.

From the very first murmuring of the muted strings of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, the clear image was of the wistful forests and endless lakes of his beloved Finish landscape. The soloist could not have been a better choice. Leonidas Kavakos won the Sibelius competition aged just 18, adding the Pagannini and Naumburg first prizes three years late. He recorded both versions of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in 1991, being the first to record the little-known (and far more technically demanding) first version. Kavakos’s rapport with the orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski was apparent from the start, perhaps aided by the hiatus caused by Jurowski’s arrival on stage without his score. A close working relationship with the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s leader was also apparent. I liked the way that he sometimes joined in with the orchestra, rather than taking a well-earned rest. His interpretation was expansive and sensitive, with relaxed tempos and an expressive approach to the more relaxed moments, playing at the edge of audible volume at times. Those in the audience who applauded after the first movement can perhaps be forgiven in these more tolerant times, but I just don’t get why anybody should have felt the urge to applaud after the tender slow movement – perhaps something that Jurowski could have tried to control. After several returns to the stage, Kavakos played an extraordinarily demanding, but musically rather slight encore which I later found out was originally a guitar piece – Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra.

Scriabin’s 3rd Symphony, the ‘Divine Poem’ is an extraordinary piece of music, so evocative of the philosophical agenda of the time of its composition; which was, unbelievably, just one year after the Sibelius concerto, in 1904. Influenced by Nietzche’s belief in the evolution and liberation of the human spirit, the symphony expresses Scriabin’s world view as expressed in the detailed notes that he distributed at the first performance. The first movement, Luttes (‘Struggle’) contrasts the powerful brass ‘I am: man is God’ motif with the ‘slave-man’ passage (marked ‘mysterious and tragic’). The second movement is more earth-bound, expressing the ‘sensual and voluptuous’ pleasures that leads to a powerful climax, suggestively noted as representing the ‘sublime surge’. The musical equivalent of a post-coital cigarette comes with a pastoral scene complete with birdsong. The last movement reprises the earlier motifs, with the ‘I am’ increasingly prominent.

Although obviously famed for its enormous power (and a suitably enormous orchestra), what was particularly impressive about this LPO performance was Vladimir Jurowski’s control of that power and his attention to detail, shaping each phrase and pointing up many of the little details. Jurowski relished the percussion added to the score in the past, including what I think was one particular touch of his own, joining up the final three chords, completely detached in the original score, but here joined up by a fff battering on timpani and bass drum. Very effective, and it kept the ‘bravo’ man quite until the end. The last section also featured a pretty prominent triangle part, the triangle player having sat unoccupied throughout, waiting for her moment.

The concert opened with Oliver Knussen’s 1978 Scriabin settings, an arrangement for chamber orchestra of five of Scirbin’s piano miniatures, composed around 1910. Knussen’s piece is for a small string orchestra with woodwind, two horns and celeste, the latter barely audible on this occasion. These delicate little mood pieces were an ideal introduction to the drama that was to come.

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