A Mixed Programme from the LPO

23/02/2012

  Mozart, Brahms, Zemlinsky, and Szymanowski: Joshua Bell (violin), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor), London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 22.2.2012 (MB)

Mozart: Symphony no.32, KV 318
Brahms:Violin Concerto in D major, op.77
Zemlinsky: Psalm no.23, op.14
Szymanowski:Symphony no.3, ‘The Song of the Night’

A peculiar programme, this, in which it was difficult to discern much of a connection between the first and second halves. But there was much to enjoy, and only one work – or rather, part of one work – proved a little disappointing. Sadly, if predictably, audience acclaim tended to be in inverse proportion to the success of the performance; indeed, quite a few audience members did not even bother to stay for the second half.

Mozart’s thirty-second symphony received for the most part a splendid reading. It was heartening to see Vladimir Jurowski employ a sensible, if hardly excessive, complement of London Philharmonic strings: 10.10.8.6.4. If only he had not deigned to employ natural trumpets and ‘period’ kettledrums – though not, curiously, natural horns. (He did the same last year, in a performance of Haydn’s eighty-eighth.) Nevertheless, the first section combined liveliness and grandeur, non-fussy articulation and a sense of drama. The Andante section flowed without being harried, breathing the outdoor air of the serenade, as well as its easy-going charm, whilst the reversion to the initial tempo brought with it a proper sense of return. It was just a pity that the kettledrums sounded like dustbin lids: I can imagine what Beecham would have said…

Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The first movement could be accounted an unalloyed success, its orchestral introduction – ‘introduction’ hardly seems appropriate here – beautifully handled by Jurowski: well-phrased, mellifluous, clear of purpose. Bell’s tone proved silvery and golden by turn, the latter coming to predominate, always perfectly centred upon the notes. However, he could show vehemence where required, though even then it would be exquisitely shaded. And how the second subject sang – both from soloist and orchestra! Form was clear, as it should be, but without turning into a mere formula; there was always, for which Jurowski must surely be credited, a keen sense of the organic to Brahms’s progress. Bell should be applauded for trying out his own cadenza but, alas, it proved no match for Joachim’s. As for the rest of the movement, though, I could find no fault whatsoever; nor should I have wished to do so. It was unfortunate, to say the least, that an alarm of some sort coincided with the opening bar of the slow movement. But the real problem, or rather one of the two real problems, was the tempo: it simply sounded too fast for an Adagio, and more importantly, too fast for this Adagio. The opening, moreover, emerged a little too moulded in Jurowski’s hands. Bell seemed at times simply to be trying too hard. One could not fault his playing as violin playing, but his seeming insistence to wring out the last drop of intensity from every phrase became a little too much: Brahms veered dangerously close to Korngold, and Bell’s approach seemed strangely at odds with Jurowski’s. The finale was ideally paced: there was clearly much for the audience to enjoy and, I dare say, to swoon over, but a little less would have been more for me. Bell’s approach seemed better suited to lovers of violin virtuosity than Brahms, but if you consider Brahms an out-and-out Romantic, closer to Paganini than to Schoenberg, you would probably have thought differently. Even I, however, wearied a little of the intensity of his vibrato. It all seemed a great pity, since the first movement had promised so much, but sections of the audience whistled and hollered nevertheless.

The second half was what had attracted me to the concert in the first place. Performances of Zemlinsky’s setting of the twenty-third psalm and Szymanowski’s Third Symphony do not come along every day; indeed, I had heard neither in concert before. Zemlinsky’s piece is an endearing oddity, at least to me, since I cannot help but find some of the music at odds with the text. But Jurowski, the LPO, and the London Philharmonic Choir gave it a wonderful performance, probably finer than any recording I have heard. The opening offered nicely pastoral woodwind, responded to by a fine, rich-toned viola solo (guest principal, Jonathan Barritt), before the ‘heavenly’ Mahler-ish (Fourth Symphony) music took over. Jurowski proved adept at bringing out affinities not only with Mahler, but also with early Schoenberg – though it is not always clear who is influencing whom in the latter case. Whatever its oddities, the psalm was magically brought to life by all concerned, never more so than in the heavenly final bars (Mahler’s Fourth again).

Szymanowski’s Third Symphony is, I think, a masterpiece, quite on a level with Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and indeed the Polish composer’s own King Roger. It has much in common with the latter work, not least its sumptuous scoring and harmony, and of course its homoeroticism. Here, in this Song of the Night, Szymanowski responds to the verse of the thirteenth-century Persian mystic, Jalāl’ad-Dīn Rumi, and how he responds! If the opening bars are richly perfumed, and they certainly were in this performance, then we soon hear something akin to an orchestral magic carpet. (Please forgive the orientalism, but it is more or less unavoidable in so orientalist a work.) If not quite possessing the sumptuousness of Boulez’s recent recording with the Vienna Philharmonic – surely now a first choice, though Rattle’s CBSO reading remains very fine indeed – then Jurowski’s LPO account still managed for the most part to emerge victorious over the Royal Festival Hall acoustic. The organ-founded climaxes packed quite a punch, but it was the Debussyan and Tristan-esque magic that truly ravished, for which conductor, orchestra, and choir were equally responsible. More than once, a progression recalled the Zemlinsky psalm too, but that seems most likely to have been coincidence and shared influence rather than direct connection. Ecstasy, when it came, proved quite overwhelming. Londoners will soon have a second opportunity to hear the symphony, when Boulez will conduct a performance with the LSO: doubtless not to be missed, but nor was this.

Mark Berry

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