London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

This way in to the labyrinth of the South Bank’s Alfred Schnittke Festival: Between Two Worlds. Vladimir Jurowski, our guide, should be commended for devising such a clever programme and for furthermore providing an intriguing context for the compositions of this style-tripping musical maverick.

The big work here was Schnittke’s opera The History of Dr. Johann Faustus – or rather sizeable bleeding chunks of it, an appropriate metaphor given the not-so-good doctor’s grisly end.

But counterbalancing the ungodly antics of Mephistophiles and his female counterpart (double-trouble in Schnittke’s opera) was the Christian symbolism of Wagner’s Parsifal. And before that there was Haydn – demonstrating the length and breadth of Schnittke’s influences. Indeed, the mysterious walking bass characterising the first movement of the concert opener – Haydn’s Symphony No.22 “The Philosopher” – could easily be imagined as underscoring our stately walk to the Temple of the Grail in Wagner’s opera. The other-worldly sonority of pairs of natural horns and cor anglais seemed every bit as strange as some of Schnittke’s imaginings. Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra then played the Parsifal Prelude and Good Friday Music with great intimacy, understating the shuddering tremolando in string basses symbolising the suffering of the Christ figure Amfortas – mindful perhaps of greater horrors in store for Faust.

The really ingenious thing about Schnittke’s History of Dr. Johann Faustus (sourced from a 1587 book of folk tales by Johann Spies) is the way he casts it as a kind of Anti-Passion for an Anti-Christ with the first act given over almost entirely to a Narrator/Evangelist figure (the excellent Markus Brutscher) and an orchestra whose function is almost exclusively to provide punctuation and exclamation. Annabel Arden’s effective “semi-staging”, luridly lit like a kind of underground cabaret, helped raise the interest level and theatricality of this rather austere section of the piece – and similarly sketchy were Faust’s travels with the devil in act two where we instead focused on three rather wonderful Wozzeckian lamentations for our anti-hero, an impassioned Stephen Richardson.

But the real kicker of this skeletal opera is Faust’s grisly demise in the final act and here Schnittke (aided and abetted by Jurowski) goes over the top and then some with a kind of Faustian counterpart to The Rocky Horror Show. Andrew Watts’ Mephistophiles - a freakish male alto in stockings and high-heels – and his female counterpart – Anna Larsson in a crimson basque and leather pants – despatch Faust with a Tango to the abyss and with wailing flexatone, alto sax, and electric guitar degenerating into a gruesome parody of Kurt Weill, we’re a long way from Parsifal.

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