mon 08/08/2022

Schäfer, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Schäfer, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

Schäfer, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

Low-wattage singing, novel conducting in a programme of bright lights

Despite footsteps in the snow, as creepily characterised by Debussy's prelude of the same name, and sleighbells to launch a childlike symphonic journey, interior illumination should have been at the core of this concert. Sadly, given Colin Matthews's refined but fussy designer lighting in his Debussy orchestrations, a low-wattage Rimbaud/Britten zoo from one-tone soprano Christine Schäfer and hard sunbeams failing to probe the inner mysteries of the tomb-effigies Mahler envisaged in his Fourth Symphony's slow movement, it wasn't. Fortunately Vladimir Jurowski found novelty enough elsewhere to keep us from slumping in the semi-dark.

In fact the artistry of London Philharmonic sleighbell-wielder Rachel Gledhill at the start of the symphony proved much more focused than Schäfer's short-winded handling of the "child's view of heaven" in its one-off song-finale (really, it doesn't instil much confidence in the singer's involvement if she swishes on for a state visit at the heaven's-gate climax just before her entry). And the sharp attack of Gledhill's schellen held good for the rest of the symphony's playful-grotesque first half. Jurowski underlined the nimble neoclassicism of the first movement and the surprising chamber-musical modernism of the second - so much so that a gentleman who claimed to know "a bit of Mahler" asked me at the end if that had been Britten we'd been hearing. The clarinet ensemble revelled in its seemingly amplified mechanical birdsong and its gurgling support - magnificently complemented by the eight double basses lined up centre-back - and leader Peter Schoeman played light but incisive with the high-tuned striking up of brother death's fiddle.

Clearly the "restful" poco adagio with which Mahler asks those tombstones to be inspected in the innocence-meets-experience saga of the third movement is a hint to avoid too slow a beatification. I would have bought Jurowski's walking pace had the strings been able to convey the inwardness usually reserved for the likes of their Berlin or Vienna counterparts. Yet despite some very beautiful cello phrasing, it moved me as little as Jurowski's much slower account of the final Adagio in his season-opening Mahler 3, and the suffering interludes which break up the radiant variations didn't truly turn the knife. Jurowski surely got the gay science of the two dance sequences exactly right, though, and for the second time in the performance I wanted to laugh out loud as the fairground whirl implodes to pave the way for a final assault on the pearly gates.

Christine_SchaeferNo problem then with the inward glow of heaven's delights and the sudden attack of its cruelties Jurowski struck in the finale. But at the very least you need a bright soprano who can sing the phrase "Sank Peter im Himmel sieht zu" and its variants in a single breath, and this was beyond an uneasy Schäfer (pictured right). Her Britten Les illuminations was the reverse of lights on, no one home: you felt a fine song interpreter's nuances were impeded by a placement reaching only to the front of the hall; indeed Schäfer's finest moments are, I think, to be found in the close-ups of DVD, as in her Royal Opera Gilda and her stunning Glyndebourne Lulu. The French was indeterminate, too: do these Germans have problems with other languages (I'm thinking of Jonas Kaufmann's Italian as well as Anne Schwanewilms's tonally beautiful, verbally mushy Berlioz Nuits d'é)? Best here was the LPO strings' sombre interlude rejoinder to all the radiance of the youngish Britten's dazzling earlier numbers.

There was certainly some subtle magic in their realisation of Colin Matthews's Debussy orchestrations, a knowing cross between the sound world of his selected composer's Ibéria and Ravel's Ma mère l'oye. Yet somehow the careful shifts of register as the strange footsteps in the snow move slowly onwards robbed the piano original of its hypnotic effect, and the fireworks which on the keyboard truly take flight here remained earthbound in the orchestral mix. A first half, in short, that failed to engage many members of an audience already inclined to nod in the warmth of an overheated hall: only the Mahler could truly rouse them from their torpor.


In your blanket statement that “Germans have problems with other languages” you make reference to Jonas Kaufmann’s Italian. May I point out that Mr Kaufmann speaks the language of Dante so fluently that even Italians find it hard to believe he is not one of them, and that this ability is reflected in his singing of works in Italian.

It wasn't a "blanket statement", Helen, it was an - admittedly rather fatuous - question applied to "these" as in Schafer, Schwanewilms and Kaufmann. I'm sure the treasurable JK is as intelligent as they come, as is obvious from the way he shades and colours roles. But perhaps speaking is not the same as singing. To be fair, the Italian didn't bother me as it did some in the Adriana Lecouvreur; it was listening to the verismo disc, which has some splendid things on it (Canio's aria especially). The words sometimes turn to mush given that sometimes swallowed middle register which is the only other thing that worries me about this excellent artist. And perhaps this is a reaction, too, to everyone who says he's the next flawlessly great artist. I'm sure he could be great yet, but for the moment, in my opinion, he's interesting, very good and of course the handsomest tenor to appear on stage for a very long time.

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