Jury Out: Jurowski Yet to Prove Himself A Wagnerian, Succeeds in Strauss, Excels in Tchaikovsky

Wagner, Strauss and Tchaikovsky: Christine Brewer (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 4.5.2011 (JPr)

Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Prelude to Act I

Strauss, Vier letzte Lieder

Tchaikovsky, Symphony No.5

This concert started badly but improved dramatically as the evening went on, finally doing justice to what was announced as the 60th anniversary of the first public performance at the Royal Festival Hall. Vladimir Jurowski is a conductor I find it hard to warm to; obviously what is important is the end product but on the podium he reminds me of a Italian traffic policeman – minus the white gloves, helmet or whistle – but all stiffness with jerky hands, arms and stick action.

With his head firmly in the score the Prelude from Act I of Die Meistersinger was a bit of a concern for those with tickets for his future performances with this orchestra of Wagner’s long ‘comedy’ at Glyndebourne in a short while. I will give it the benefit of being a ‘work in progress’ as Jurowski lumbered through a not very coherent – confident? – account of what is traditionally a fairly straightforward outpouring of ceremonial Wagnerian bombast. Or perhaps its very understatedness is a further warning for those going to Glyndebourne of what to expect from the production? Jurowski often lost control of orchestral balance and the final pages sounded like a tuba concerto as Lee Tsarmaklis’s contribution was so prominent.

Christine Brewer always has a powerful voice with a rich and beautiful sound but she is not always – or maybe just when I have seen her – the most musically prepared of singers. However she was very much at home in four of the songs that were Strauss’s last musical compositions. It is possibly the best I have ever heard her sing, even though Ms Brewer took a short while to rein in her full Wagnerian attack and volume. The Vier letzte Lieder leaves the soprano fiendishly exposed for long passages and Ms Brewer was not entirely at her ease until ‘Müdegewordenen Augen zu’ at the end of the second song, September. On this occasion well-balanced and ravishing playing by the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave her all the support she required through Strauss’s soaring music. Most prominent were the plaintive horns in this song, Pieter Schoeman’s eloquent violin in Beim Schlafengehen and the combination of strings, horns, trilling flutes and piccolos bringing Im Abendrot to its poignant conclusion.

Strauss did not live to hear these 1948 songs performed but neither did he know this would be the last music he would complete. In fact he was still working on setting another Hesse poem – Strauss sets texts by Hesse as the first three of these Four Last Songs. Though there is little evidence Strauss considered Im Abendrot as something of a full-stop to his career; closure there indeed is from the words ‘Ist dies etwa der Tod?’ (Is this perhaps death?) that is followed by a musical quotation from Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and Transfiguration’) written over half-a-century earlier. This instrumental conclusion was incandescent but would have meant little without Christine Brewer’s delicately controlled and quietly ruminative final words.

Jurowski whose Wagnerian – and even possibly Mahlerian – credentials are yet to be proven was on the safer ground – home territory in fact – in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Composed in 1888 at a particularly dark time in the tormented Tchaikovsky’s life the work features a recurring fate theme that sombrely underpins the symphony. There is some lighter relief in the second movement that brings us a lyrical and tender love melody – music sounding to be straight from the final scene and apotheosis of a ballet; it never settles and is interrupted twice by fate. After a waltz-time third movement the symphony does, however, seem to end optimistically though the dubious sense of triumph of this Finale is somewhat underscored by a feeling of ‘I am what I am’ defiance.

The symphony was extremely well-played and the strings were particularly outstanding, especially in the last movement. Jurowski chose just the right tempi with a perfect balance (that word again) of romance and histrionics. The dark and foreboding opening brought a sober funeral march to mind and the climaxes in both this and the second movements got plenty of power from the LPO’s brass. The third movement waltz had a consummate charm that is only to be expected from an orchestra that can play schmaltz in its sleep. Finally after an ominous Andante maestoso, Jurowski gesticulated to the LPO principal Simon Carrington’s timpani to drive home at forte Tchaikovsky’s message of triumph over what fate had in store for him – or for us all – during the symphony’s hyper-Romantic and stirring conclusion.

Jim Pritchard