fri 06/12/2019

Wegener, LPO, Jurowski, RFH review – on the revolutionary road to Mahler | reviews, news & interviews

Wegener, LPO, Jurowski, RFH review – on the revolutionary road to Mahler

Wegener, LPO, Jurowski, RFH review – on the revolutionary road to Mahler

How to blow away the schmaltz, and recover the shock, of an iconic work

Vocal beauty and presence: Sarah WegenerSimon Wagner

For better or worse, because of Visconti’s classic film the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony now inevitably means Venice in its gloomiest moods. So there turned out to be a grim timeliness in a performance on an evening that coincided with the most devastating “acqua alta” to flood the city in half a century. Yet, in keeping with everything he does with the London Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski’s reading at the Royal Festival Hall made us think afresh about an iconic work and dispel its more hackneyed, reach-me-down associations.

Not for Jurowski the languid late-Romantic swoon of some baton-wielding titans of the recent past. Instead this Adagietto, if it did not quite race, then at least strained and pushed urgently against the morbid melancholia that threatens to engulf Mahler's love-letter in sound to his future wife Alma. The LPO strings, always taut as well as deep under the guidance of their outstanding leader Pieter Schoeman, gave us frissons aplenty without the suffocating fuzziness of some more indulgent versions. Jurowski steered the movement home in under nine minutes without losing the hushed resonance and stillness that it needs. 

In general, this was a Fifth that channelled the revolutionary Mahler with burning, blistering power. From the commanding trumpet solo by Paul Beniston onwards, the opening funeral march had an almost cheeky saunter, a nightmarish lurch and sway that found perverse exaltation in despair. Jurowski’s elastic tempi and ability to pinpoint and highlight solo contributions without detracting from the strength of the ensemble perpetually kept, as it were, our ears on their toes. The always-impressive LPO woodwinds gave the second march theme a ghastly merriment, while the finely-managed string surges – boosted by a magnificent armoured corps of basses – reminded us of this concert’s opener: the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde. It was as if Wagner’s sonic hallucination had been filtered through a further half-century of delirious visions blending love into death.

The great storm of the second movement retained the clarity and definition of its individual parts even as the heavens broke, while its fervent brass chorale proved that Jurowski’s top-drawer LPO really has no weak links. He succeeds in making this outfit sound like an all-star band of fully integrated virtuosi. Yet their individual flourishes don’t seem to impair the coherence of the whole. This may be radically disintegrative, centrifugal music, but we trust Jurowski’s sure grasp of its entire map. For the mad and mighty Scherzo, horn principal John Ryan moved to the side of the stage to issue his impassioned, unsettling solo pleas and laments. The lone horn sounded like some shunned and wounded beast as Jurowski (pictured above) drove the orchestra through the deranged waltzes of this section. Via periodic coups in his tempi and dynamics, he retains the element of surprise as a key weapon in his locker – crucial with a work that, however familiar now, disconcerted and outraged so many early listeners. Here, the pizzicato strings rightly made our hair stand on end. Then came that tight, fierce Adagietto, with principal cello Kristina Blaumane a stand-out presence – as she proved throughout the evening. In the finale, the lordly brass once more roared above the fray as the strings swayed and galloped in dangerously ecstatic waves. Jurowski kept us aware of the ambushes and booby-traps which Mahler lays down through the score – shock-tactics that nonetheless require the smartest of stage-management. As he propelled us towards a glorious consummation, the playing touched (to my ears) Bernstein-era levels of passion and drama –  thoroughly Modern(ist) Mahler, but also a return to the sheer excitement generated by his earlier advocates.

Jurowski’s LPO programmes always stitch their components into a thoughtful totality. Before the interval, the Tristan Prelude and a selection of Richard Strauss’s (mostly early) songs had paved the way for Mahler Five as a culmination of the long Romantic twilight – but also a starburst of innovation that lights up the century ahead. The Wagner, as we would expect from Jurowski, had clean lines and careful weighting, along with a sense of pace and expectation that (as with the Adagietto) discouraged too much moody dawdling among the lovesick strings. Blaumane’s exemplary cellos set the tone for playing that achieved sumptuousness without schmaltz. Among the woods, Ian Hardwick and the oboes gave notice of the character-rich pleasures to come (likewise for Sue Thomas and her other flutes). After Wagner, as a kind of filigree bridge to the Fifth, Sarah Wegener sang her Strauss medley with freshness, intimacy and quiet authority. The Anglo-German soprano stood in at a late stage for the unwell Diana Damrau, and showed a relaxed command of these nuanced, expressive but often elusive pieces. Her upper register had an expansive bloom and glow that could, I thought, have been let off the leash a little more. 

She showed a restraint and delicacy here that, although in impeccable taste, had the effect of softening the colours of the songs from time to time. Wegener excelled at shifts of timbre and atmosphere – between the sweetness of Ständchen, say, the sensuality of "Freundliche Vision," and the lullaby tenderness of "Wiegenlied". Sometimes, though, passages of fervour and grandeur could have done with a shade less reticence. Although beautifully delivered, "Morgen!" left me thinking of interpretations of that song that have touched Wagnerian – or Mahlerian – heights, as did the final "Zueignung". But there was vocal beauty, technique and presence here in gratifying plenty. 

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