United Kingdom Brahms, Wagner and Bruckner: Anna Larsson (contralto), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.10.2012. (JPr)
Brahms: Tragic Overture, Op.81
Wagner: (orchestrated Henze) Wesendonck Lieder
Bruckner: Symphony No.1 in C minor [Linz version; 1877 revision]
Following a recent review, I was taken to task by a reader for not being as enthusiastic as he had been about the concert. Possibly, I may be out-of-step again with the majority about this rather low-key concert of Brahms, Wagner and Bruckner that was little more than a public final rehearsal for the London Philharmonic Orchestra before heading off to Spain and Germany, returning just in time for a break over Christmas.
Vladimir Jurowski (who is conducting in Madrid, with Christoph Eschenbach doing the honours in Germany) began with Brahms’s Tragic Overture. It opens with two fortissimo chords than have been described by Brahms’s biographer, Malcolm MacDonald, as hammer-blows of fate. Here the chords seemed rather too genteel to pre-empt any really tragic music. I wonder – however impressively the London Philharmonic Orchestra played – whether it could have sounded a little less stolid and been more expressive in its passionate, spectral or agitated sections. Its minor key ending is undoubtedly bleak but I wasn’t convinced that this Brahms overture (only one of two such pieces he wrote) had a story to tell me – and sometimes I need that.
In a lecture I give about Richard Wagner I recall how after his involvement in the failed Dresden revolution of 1849, he goes ‘on the run’. He ended up in Zurich taking advantage of the hospitality of Otto Wesendonck, a wealthy silk merchant, for both sanctuary lodgings … and his wife! Whether he was simply infatuated with, Mathilde, or it was more than that is debatable, but it brought the world Tristan und Isolde and his settings of five of her poems where two are clearly ‘studies’ for that 1865 music-drama. For him, Mathilde was Isolde! Originally composed for voice and piano they are more often performed in the orchestrations for largish forces by Felix Mottl of the first four, with Wagner himself arranging No.5 Träume. Henze’s sounds are much more diaphanous than Mottl’s, there are some moments of real pathos and often a nostalgic haunting glow to the accompaniments – but these are essentially significant darker than what we usual hear.
Wagner can work well for a low voice, such as Petra Lang’s, but sadly Anna Larsson’s contralto was not ideal for this Wagner; it was unwieldy to begin with and lacking true focus and had a much too cavernous sound – though I could imagine her, as Erda, wonderfully warning Wotan in Das Rheingold. Her contralto contrasted rather oddly with Henze’s more delicate scoring and was great for sinking ‘into their grave’ at the end of Träume but elsewhere where the voice needed to be ‘on the air’, such as for Im Treibhaus, any ‘sweet fragrance’ failed to rise. Undoubtedly Larsson gave a nuanced reading of the texts but an important element of transfiguration to which these songs can lead – when sung by some others – was totally missing.
I am grateful to Ken Ward of The Bruckner Journal for informing me of the version of Bruckner’s First Symphony that the LPO played. Bruckner wrote the symphony in 1866 and it was premièred in 1868. The orchestral parts have survived and resulted in its reconstruction, edited by William Carragan. It was that version Vladimir Jurowski and his orchestra played a year ago at the Royal Festival Hall (reviewed here by Gavin Dixon). Subsequently Bruckner did some minor revisions, trying to regularise the phrase lengths. In doing so he added a bar of repeated crotchets at the beginning, dotted trumpets at the very end and sundry other very minor cuts and additions, and re-orchestrations. He completed this by 1877 and I am led to believe these alterations are hardly noticeable. Presumably because the actual 1866 version has been resurrected, the usual ‘Linz’ version of the symphony is now designated as 1877, and that is what Jurowski now conducted.
This First Symphony was written by Bruckner at the advanced age of 41 and apparently was triggered by a performance he heard of Tristan und Isolde,though any echoes of Wagner are hard to discern in this work – more likely is the influence (or vice versa) this music had on Mahler who was studying with him about the time of the revisions outlined above. The opening march theme sounds very familiar as does the danse macabre feeling to the Scherzo and the head-of-steam experienced as the Finale drives onwards to its empathetic climax. Along the way there were some characteristic Brucknerian pauses that oddly freeze the tension from time to time but overall the reading impressed after a less than engrossing first couple of movements. Despite the LPO’s fine string playing the Adagio perhaps demanded to be more spiritual. However, to Jurowski’s credit the Scherzo generated some wild excitement and the Finale never got bogged down and maintained its momentum to its exciting closing bars.