The London Philharmonic’s Disappointing Season Opener

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Strauss and Zemlinsky: Soloists, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.9.2012 (MB)

Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten (orchestral excerpts)
: Eine florentinische Tragödie, op.16 (concert performance)

Bianca: Heike Wessels (mezzo-soprano)
Guido Bardi : Sergei Skorokhodov (tenor)
Simone: Albert Dohmen (bass-baritone)

This made for a disappointing opening to the LPO’s season, not the fault of the orchestra, but in many respects to be attributed to Vladimir Jurowski. The failure of the Frau ohne Schatten excerpts, despite some fine orchestral playing, may be ascribed to two principal factors: problems with Jurowski’s direction and, more gravely, the very idea of extracting parts here and there from the orchestral score, without voices, and trying to present them as some sort of coherent whole. Some people have done something similar with Wagner’s Ring, with a similar lack of success, but here Jurowski might have taken note that Strauss himself failed to make his ‘Symphonic Fantasy’ cohere. One wills it to do so, but even in the hands of Kempe, or more recently Christian Thielemann, it simply does not. At least the composer’s effort is shorter than was this meandering hotch-potch. It opened as the opera itself does, but in Jurowski’s hands, rigid, metronomic, merely loud rather than resplendent. At times, it sounded almost like a parody of Stravinsky – and that takes some doing. Soon, moreover, the tension began to sag. Without the voices, too much of the score sounded as if we were in rehearsal rather than in concert. Moreover, a good part of it lacked a keen sense of harmonic grounding and motion, increasingly a problem from many conductors in the core Austro-German repertoire, especially when they sound superficially ‘exciting’. There was a fair bit of orchestral uncertainty too to balance against the pinpoint, almost brutal, precision of other passages, such as the opening. At least we managed to hear some impressive solo work, for instance from leader Pieter Schoeman and principal cello, Kristina Blaumane. Even the grinding dissonances just before the close failed properly to register, whilst the closing bars were merely sugary, nauseating in the wrong way. It would have been difficult to come up with a greater contrast with Bernard Haitink’s recent Vienna Philharmonic Prom performance of the Alpine Symphony. But the very premise of this performance was flawed. Perhaps Stokowski might have made something of the idea; one can imagine a time-travelling Liszt doing so on the piano. Jurowski did not.

He made a better job of Zemlinsky’s Florentine Tragedy, in itself a welcome visitor to a London concert hall, though sadly not to a London stage. The obvious Straussian inspiration for Zemlinsky’s version of Wilde’s A Florentine Tragedy was of course Salome, which Zemlinsky had conducted for the first time in 1910. Both operas are in one act, though Eine Florentine Tragödie, composed between 1915 and 1916, is considerably shorter. Moreover, the nauseating headiness of Strauss’s opera cast a shadow over a number of ‘late Romantic’ or ‘early modernist’ – whatever we wish to call them – operas, Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten a fine example. The links between biography and art are rarely as clear as some would like to make them, even when ironised as in a number of Strauss’s works, but the congruence of plot between opera and Mathilde Schoenberg’s affair – yes, the wife of that Schoenberg and sister of Zemlinsky – with the painter, Richard Gerstl, who then took his life when Mathilde returned to Schoenberg, is difficult to ignore. There is no love-scene as such at the opening, though there is later on, evocatively coloured by whole-tone harmonies. However, the Prelude, like that to Act I of Der Rosenkavalier, makes all clear, albeit in darker tones than Strauss had employed (though not necessarily darker in this performance). Guido, Prince of Florence, and Bianca have been indulging their passion and, upon the appearance of the merchant Simone, Bianca’s husband, hardly succeed in quieting his suspicions. It takes a dissonant duel – and Guido’s death – to have Bianca appreciate her husband, and then for his strength.

Though the Prelude was driven and perhaps too bright – a little more nausea would have been to the good – we heard that this was recognisably the composer of the Lyric Symphony, surely Zemlinsky’s masterpiece. If there were times, especially early on, when Jurowski proceeded too audibly bar-by-bar, at least the basic structure of the work was apparent. (Imagine, though, Thielemann taking on such repertoire!) Slower sections, in particular, fared better than they had in Strauss, where they had often simply dragged. Indeed, it was generally the orchestral climaxes that came off best. The real problem here lay with the singers. Whilst Heike Wessels showed occasional bloom as Bianca, both Albert Dohmen as Simone and Sergei Skorokhodov as Guido struggled to make any real impression. More often than not one could barely hear the latter above the orchestra, and the same was true too often of the former. There was no charisma, no sense of who the characters might be, of why we might care about them. At best, the score emerged as a symphonic poem with voices, something of an irony given the ill-fated Strauss first half. And so, the ominous ostinato when Simone bids Bianca spin came across with more foreboding, more frighteningly even, than one might have expected. Something of the score’s claustrophobia registered too, as did the brief – ironic? – transfiguration at the end when the remaining couple hymn each other’s strength and beauty. I suspect the opera needs a staging, perhaps of the Von heute auf morgen variety. It certainly needs a superior vocal contribution.


Mark Berry