LPO: 2001 New Century, New Sounds

2001: New Century, New Sounds
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski
Royal Festival Hall, 8 February 2020

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major
Péter Eötvös: Snatches of a Conversation for trumpet, speaker and ensemble
Scriabin: Symphony No. 2 in g minor

The first concert of London Philharmonic Orchestra’s fascinating 2020 Vision project celebrated Beethoven’s 250th birthday with “a conversation between the past, the present and the future of music”. Their opening programme contrasted pieces from 1801, Subsequent programmes over the next few months will cover successive years in each of the three centuries. They opened with an adventurous programme of Beethoven, Scriabin and Péter Eötvös. Although Beethoven’s 1st Symphony was published in 1801, compositional sketches go back to 1795, and it was first performed the year earlier in April 1800 in the Hoftheater nächst der Burg in Vienna. It was something of a calling-card for Beethoven who had only recently arrived in Vienna. But it made an excellent start to the LPO’s New Century, New Sounds series of concerts.

The Beethoven Symphony starts with a sequence of disturbing chords in what turns out to be the ‘wrong’ key before finally settling in the home key. The strict Sonata form belies an adventurous musical sequence, not least of harmonic invention, reaching remote keys. The following three movements, although appearing conventional in the Haydn/Mozart idiom, each have progressive features, not least in terms of the relative speeds of the Andante cantabile, but with a ((possibly suspect) speed marking suggesting something much faster, and the Menuetto, also marked as a faster Allegro molto e vivace.

The string forces of 10, 10, 5, 5, 4 was sufficient to fill the acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall without clouding the texture of the music. Vladimir Jurowski set an appropriately lively pace, no doubt drawing on his long experience with period instrument orchestras like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Some of Beethoven’s most memorable symphonic moment occurs in his little transition passages, and Jurowski relished these, notably in the teasing introduction to the fourth movement when a gradually increasing scale of notes introduces the Allegro. 

We then jumped forward two centuries to Snatches of a Conversation for double-bell trumpet, speaker and ensemble. it was composed in 2001 by the Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös. He was born in 1944 in a part of Transilvania that shortly after his birth was transferred to Romania. Snatches of a Conversation was composed for the 2001 Europäischer Musikmonat in Basle. A solo trumpeter (Marco Blaauw) playing a double-bell trumpet, and a narrator are joined by an ensemble of flute, clarinet, sax, trombone, vibraphone, marimba, electric piano with sampled sound, 2 violins, viola, cello, and contrabass. It is an extraordinary piece, and could easily be expanded into an opera. It is apparently set in a cafe where a waiter (the trumpeter) catches snatches of conversation from the tables, here spoken by narrator Omar Ebrahim. Amongst the gems were “My instincts tell me to go”, “She is always nagging me”, How much longer will I be able to stand it”, “She knows everything”, “Cancel the tickets”. The music passes through a series of tableaux, the extraordinary sound of Marco Blaauw’s double-bell trumpet adding a commentary.

A century after Beethovens 1st Symphony, in 1901, the 29-year-old Alexander Scriabin wrote his Second Symphony. It has five movements, with the outer pairs linked together enclosing the central Andante. Although lacking the inventiveness of his latter, more experimental music, it is a powerful work routed in Scriabin’s early influences of 19th-century Romanticism. Each of the five movements is in a different, and only marginally related key, moving from C minor, E flat major, E flat major, F minor and C major. The opening Andante sets the scene with its series of powerful climaxes, separated by more reflective and melodic interludes, featuring the clarinet of Benjamin Mellefont. It was soon clear that this was the format for the entire work, with a series of ebbs and flows of sound.

In the second movement Allegro the enormous power of the brass joins the fray. Musically the highlight was the central Andante, an expansive 15′ pastorale elegy bookended by bird calls from the flutes, let by Juliette Bauser. The fourth movement Tempestoso started rather mysteriously before settling into its brisk mood before erupting into the concluding bombastic Maestoso. It is not the most sophisticated musical works of all time, but was well worth this comparatively rare hearing.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 14 February.