tue 16/10/2018

Uchida, Connolly, Skelton, LPO, Jurowski, RFH review – songs of farewell | reviews, news & interviews

Uchida, Connolly, Skelton, LPO, Jurowski, RFH review – songs of farewell

Uchida, Connolly, Skelton, LPO, Jurowski, RFH review – songs of farewell

Last words from Mozart and Mahler, played and sung with dignity and insight

Sarah Connolly, Mahlerian and Handelian mezzo extraordinaireChristopher Pledger

Not all composers require the finger of mortality pointing at them to develop what becomes a late style. Charges of detachment and even indifference have been levelled at the B flat major Piano Concerto K595 which Mozart completed early in the year of his death, but Mitsuko Uchida’s playing of it on Saturday night was as refined, as weightless and translucent as her trademark silk tops.

Recent analysis of the manuscript source has suggested that in fact Mozart completed most of the concerto three years earlier, around the time of the last three symphonies. Without introducing a note of false pathos Vladimir Jurowski subtly underlined the similarity of its opening gesture to the restless opening quavers of the G minor 40th Symphony. The tempo he set was a measured one – very much Uchida’s choice to judge from her own most recent recording of the concerto in which she directs the Cleveland Orchestra from the keyboard.

Jurowski has offered less grave and more flowing accompaniments to other Mozart pianists of renown, but Uchida brings to her concerto performances not only the beautifully weighted articulation which makes every note count but also a whole sound-world that demands the keenest response from the orchestra. In her hands the concerto’s apparently plain themes are touched by disarming rather than unnerving simplicity. Particularly limpid playing of the Larghetto elicited an almost total rejection of ego from Uchida, transforming the piano into an instrument of texture, no less able to sing than the violins and flute behind her.

Stuart Skelton, heroic in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde

Jurowski has been building his Mahler cycle season by season and in chronological order, while relishing the individual and heterogenous character of each succeeding symphony that can perhaps be too easily read as the next chapter in a Proustian summation of experience. After last season’s triumphant, quasi-operatic re-evaluation of the Eighth, it was the turn of Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler subtitled it a “song-symphony” and claimed that it was really his Ninth – only superstition and obsession over his own mortality had prevented him from naming it so – but Jurowski seemed to have other ideas. There was no evidence here of the dying embers of the Austro-German symphonic tradition, fanned into life once more by a composer-conductor whose relationship to it had always been seen as oblique and controversial even in his own time. Rather we were breathing the exotic, smoky air of Ravel’s Shéhérezade, of Schoenberg’s Cabaret Songs and other funky and contemporaneous appropriations of non-canonical cultures.

Sarah Connolly and Stuart Skelton (pictured above by Sim Canetty-Clarke) were taking a night off from their strenuous Wagnerian endeavours as members of the Royal Opera’s Ring cycle over the river. There isn’t much a tenor can do with the first song, and Skelton did it magnificently, taking what looked like almost masochistic fun from the cruelty of Mahler’s demands (sempre ff, he writes at one point in the vocal line) and singing with the kind of heroic ring that allowed the LPO brass to play out behind him and Jurowski to reserve niceties of balance and delicacies of Expressionist texture for “Der Einsame in Herbst”.

Indeed, if the alto songs spring from an expressive well of dignified restraint, then in Connolly they find an ideal match, wringing every sympathy from both the text and her audience. Only in the excitable middle section of “Von der Schönheit” did Fricka’s demands take their toll. Jurowski maintained a forward pulse and sharply profiled orchestral canvas for “Der Abschied” and its long funeral march, much more Kokoschka than Klimt. He finally let time expand and texture dissolve over the score’s last two pages for Connolly’s rapturous echoes of “Ewig”, and for Mahler’s journeyer to recede over the horizon, destination unknown.

@peterquantrill

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