A Rare Chance to Hear Zemlinsky’s Opulent Die Seejungfrau

11/03/2016

Rachmaninov, Zemlinsky: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 9.3.2016. (RB)

Rachmaninov:  Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor Op 30
Zemlinsky:  Die Seejungfrau (‘The Mermaid’)

Both of the late Romantic works on tonight’s programme were written in the first decade of the 20th Century when the neo-Classical and modernist works of Stravinsky, Bartók and Schoenberg were beginning to emerge.  As a result, both of the composers were seen as throwbacks to a bygone era.  Rachmaninov’s highly virtuosic Third Piano Concerto is one of the great war horses of the repertoire and its vertiginous technical demands are not for the faint hearted.  Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau is less well known, partly because the score was lost for many decades but it is a sumptuous work which deserves wider recognition.

Rachmaninov wrote his D Minor Concerto in 1909 at his family estate for his forthcoming tour of the USA.  The composer was the soloist for the first few performances of the concerto and the third performance with the New York Philharmonic was particularly memorable as Gustav Mahler was the conductor.  Hamelin’s technical command at the keyboard is second to none so in some ways this concerto is a perfect vehicle for his talents.  Having said that, I would not normally associate him with Rachmaninov’s heart on sleeve Romanticism.  Hamelin adopted a rather cool approach in the Allegro ma non tanto first movement and he was able to navigate the enormous technical demands with ease.  He was at his best with the contrapuntal toccata-like figurations and he played the swirling, iridescent passage-work with enormous fluency.  I missed the sense of engulfing grand passion at the climaxes to the piece and occasionally I would have liked him to sing more.  Hamelin played the lighter of the two cadenzas and this was a jaw dropping tour de force before he was joined by the LPO’s woodwind and horn for some sensitive chamber music exchanges.

Jurowski adopted a nicely flowing tempo for the Adagio second movement and the LPO’s woodwind and strings produced gorgeous textures and colours, setting the scene beautifully.  Hamelin played the opening melody with tenderness and he presented Rachmaninov’s rich textures with a crystalline clarity as melodies and counter-melodies vied with one another.  In the central section Hamelin gave us some of his most nakedly emotional playing against a rich, vibrant accompaniment from Jurowski and the LPO.  The final waltz section with its dizzying repeated notes was elegant and very polished technically although I missed the sense of sparkle and mischievous delight that one hears in great performances of the work.  Hamelin slightly lost concentration at the beginning of the Alla breve finale:  he and Jurowski did not always seem completely together and the sense of racing exhilaration was not quite there.  The ensuing scherzando sections were handled with delicacy and finesse and some of Hamelin’s finger-work was breathtaking.  The recapitulation and coda was a barnstorming piece of playing as Hamelin and Jurowski whipped the music up with tremendous relish before an exhilarating dash to the finish.  There was much to admire here although this concerto does not play to Hamelin’s strengths and his performance was a little too cool for my taste.  (I suspect he will be better suited to Medtner’s Second Piano Concerto which he is also scheduled to play with the LPO.)  Hamelin was coaxed back to the platform to perform one of Earl Wild’s virtuoso Gershwin transcriptions as an encore.

Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (‘The Mermaid’) is a three-movement Symphonic Fantasy after Hans Christian Andersen.  It received its first performance at a concert in 1905 together with Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande.  Zemlinsky withdrew the composition from further performance after the concert and it was not until 1984 that the scores of the various movements (which were separated in America and Vienna) were correctly identified and a full performance was again staged.  The work is programmatic and describes the events depicted in Andersen’s famous fairy tale.  The work begins in the depths of the ocean and the LPO’ brass, lower strings and harps did a great job in introducing us to Andersen’s fairy tale realm.  Jurowski kept a tight grip on the symphonic narrative and whipped things magnificently for the shipwreck episode where we heard vibrant fanfares from the LPO’s brass and a wonderful sea squall from the strings.  Pieter Shoeman played the violin solos with a beguiling beauty of tone, perfectly depicting the mermaid’s yearning for a life with the prince in the world above.

Jurowski coaxed some gorgeous colours from the LPO at the start of the second movement with its glistening strings and percussion effects introducing us to celebratory festivities.  The transformation of the material was flexible and well controlled with the LPO responding beautifully to Jurowski’s sympathetic direction.  Grotesque entries in the woodwind introduced us to the sea witch and the music became increasingly sinister as she struck her infernal bargain with the mermaid.  The final movement has a more anguished feel as the mermaid is in a quandary about whether or not to kill the prince to escape the sea witch’s curse.  I was struck by the way in which Jurowski skilfully moved from the mermaid’s private musings to the more public interactions.  The lingering, opulent post-Wagnerian chromaticisms, rich textures and shifting colours were presented with enormous clarity and precision.

Overall, this was an impressive concert by the Jurowski and the LPO and they are to be congratulated for introducing Zemlinsky’s opulent score to a wider audience.

Robert Beattie

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