Although many composers have had a strong social conscience, the dialectic of politics is not easily conducted through music. The number of musical works that directly address a political theme is few and far between, at least until the middle of the 20th century when composers were caught up in the maelstrom of world events.
It takes a determined and inquiring mind to devise a successful concert on a political theme but those are qualities in which Vladimir Jurowski has never been lacking. This well-planned programme brought together three composers with a fervent message – Beethoven, Schoenberg and Nono – and formed part of a typically adventurous Jurowski project with the LPO.
The theme was the abuse of power and man’s inhumanity to man. For Beethoven, this meant the symbolic fight of good over evil, whereas Schoenberg and Nono, writing in the mid-20th century, had specific individual cases in mind.
As a Jewish émigré in the US, Schoenberg was able to comment on the conflagration in Europe from the safety of his new home. In 1942, he wrote Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, a setting of Lord Byron’s poem for baritone, piano and strings, and effectively a condemnation of Hitler. It is a tough nut to crack but Robert Hayward made a brave stab at it. Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, to his own words, works far better. Its brief and brutal picture of life in the Warsaw ghetto is like a vivid extract from an opera and Hayward’s Wagnerian voice dealt with it powerfully. Luigi Nono’s Julius Fucik is a fully dramatised scene, showing the Czech journalist being tormented in prison and dreaming of Beethoven’s liberating music. The semi-staging was halfhearted but Nono’s atmospheric music made up the difference.
A frame for these troubled 20th-century pictures was provided by Beethoven himself, with the overture to Fidelio and Symphony No 5, in which Jurowski and the LPO were at their concentrated best. Each of their performances, like the programme, gave us music-making that really had something to say.