Vladimir Jurowski offers a frustratingly variable experience

Haydn, Mahler, and Brahms: Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 28.5.2011 (MB)

Haydn – Symphony no.88 in G major
Mahler – Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Des Antonio von Padua Fischpredigt, Lob des hohen Verstandes, Rheinlegendchen, Trost im Unglück, Das irdische Leben, Der Tambourg’sell, Revelge)
Brahms – Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98

Hanno Müller-Brachmann is a musician I have admired on a number of occasions, especially in Berlin, having assumed with distinction roles ranging from Amfortas to Papageno. (He has also recorded the latter with Claudio Abbado). Müller-Brachmann, a relatively late substitution for Christian Gerhaher, offered the most impressive contribution in an otherwise frustrating concert. Gerhaher’s indisposition had necessitated a change of programme, so we heard songs from Des knaben Wunderhorn rather than other Mahler and orchestrated Brahms. If the bass baritone’s delivery was perhaps not quite so impressive as it had been in Berlin, in a complete Wunderhorn set with Petra Lang and Michael Gielen, then it remained a fine performance. Diction was perfect, so much so that the slip in ‘Trost im Unglück’ when he sang ‘weiten weiten’ rather than ‘ganzen weiten’ was especially clear, though it mattered little. From the opening song, ‘Des Antonio von Padua Fischpredigt’, one had a real sense of a storyteller, avuncular yet mordantly so, assisted by Müller-Brachmann’s naturally dark tone. Unusually fruity woodwind from the London Philharmonic heightened the sense of irony. However, despite revealing and successful attempts to delineate Mahler’s modernistic colouring, here and in the following ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’, Vladimir Jurowski rendered the bar-lines far too evident. In the latter song, Müller-Brachmann winningly brought more than a hint of Papageno to his rendition, and caused amusement with the final, braying ‘ija’. Jurowski proved to be on much better form in ‘Rheinlegendchen’, which, if on the fast side, benefited from a wistful lilt. The conductor’s bent towards modernistic sound really paid off with the percussion- and brass-led militarism in ‘Trost im Unglück’, though here I wondered whether Müller-Brachmann was becoming a little too hectoring. Fischer-Dieskau nay-sayers would certainly have thought so. ‘Das irdische Leben’ and ‘Der Tambourg’sell’ were possessed of a ghostly terror, voice and orchestra co-operating in the former to contrast the subdued and the biting, whilst horrible tread and vocal delivery in the latter looked forward to Wozzeck. Terror was also the child of rhythmical alertness in the final ‘Revelge’, whose orchestral military-band interludes made one realise once again why Mahler was accused of vulgarity, his marching tread meanwhile seeming increasingly prophetic of the cataclysmic first movement of the Sixth Symphony. Sweetness of tone and seductive irony, never more so than on ‘Ach Bruder, ach Bruder,’ rounded off a chilling rendition from Müller-Brachmann.

Haydn’s Symphony no.88 had preceded the Mahler songs. Jurowski’s performance began very well indeed, the first movement sounding cultivated, well articulated and motivically clear, through fine command of rhythm, harmony, and their crucial interaction. It was not hectic, as contemporary performances of Haydn so often tend to be, and the opening of the development possessed a true sense of the exploratory, with some beautiful pianissimo playing from the LPO. Though the orchestra was small (strings, it did not sound especially scaled down. Thematic working was quite rightly the order of the day, as one appreciated with the additional woodwind parts in the recapitulation: ‘essential flourishes’, I was tempted to call them. However, though benefiting from a nicely rustic sound, the slow movement suffered from extremely laboured phrasing. Lack of line stood in glaring contrast to the first movement’s coherence; Furtwängler and Karl Böhm could have taught the conductor a few valuable lessons here. Natural trumpets (not horns) and period-style kettledrums made for an abrasive ride, the blaring of the former suggesting a bizarre kinship with a work such as the Missa in tempore belli. The minuet stood midway between the first and second movements, edging too close to the terse Beethoven of certain schools, yet marked by agogic accents that would not have been to all tastes; the relaxed trio fared better. Surprisingly, the fourth movement marked a return to the virtues of the first: the clarity and weight of Haydn’s thematic working granting it the status of a true finale. As I said, then, a frustrating performance taken as a whole, though with a good many more positive aspects than that of the Brahms symphony to come.

Perhaps most frustratingly of all, Jurowski’s reading of the Brahms Fourth Symphony began equally promisingly, his phrasing of those generative opening thirds immediately making sense, the sound unusually contrapuntal, Bach looming large. Unfortunately, the first movement soon settled into a foursquare routine, its bar lines again far too audible, to the detriment of phrasing and general flow. The opening of the recapitulation was extraordinarily laboured: whilst there is much to be said for a certain feeling of exhaustion here, there are limits. Sadly, the closing climax was merely hard-driven, recalling, despite splendid playing throughout from the LPO, a bandmaster such as Toscanini. This, alas, was not to be a performance on a similar level to the wonderful recording made by Wolfgang Sawallisch with the same orchestra. The slow movement began very slowly, arguably too slowly, but at least had a greater sense of line. However, the first appearance of the second subject reverted to Jurowski’s earlier habit of distending, whilst its sonority sounded inappropriately sugary, almost Tchaikovskian. Tempo fluctuations were more extreme throughout than Jurowski could convincingly handle: it is better not to try to be Mengelberg unless you are Mengelberg. The scherzo was breathless, unremittingly hard-driven, with irritating agogic interruptions. Some phrases, moreover, were absurdly, arbitrarily slowed, as if placed in inverted commas. The great finale had weight, but tended to petulance rather than tragedy. There was, moreover, no sense of a guiding thread between variations, certainly no sense of what Furtwängler called Fernhören (‘long-distance hearing’). Some variations were simply too slow and pulled around as if Sir Simon Rattle were at the podium, whilst others were charmless, beaten into hurried submission. This was not a passacaglia, or even a passacaglia-derived movement, such as I could understand.

Mark Berry