United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Zemlinsky, Szymanowski: Elzbieta Szmytka (soprano), Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Andrzej Dobber (baritone), London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra,/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 5.3.2016. (AS)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3 in D, Op. 29, Polish
Zemlinsky: Six Maeterlinck Songs, Op. 13
Szymanowski: Stabat Mater, Op. 53
Vladimir Jurowski is very much to be admired for his enterprising programmes with the LPO. The concert programme contained a journalist’s quote regarding Jurowski’s ability to “summon a packed house to hear anything he conducts with the LPO, however unfamiliar” – a remark that was certainly true on this occasion.
The case of Karol Szymanowski is a strange one. His works seem to be admired generally outside his native Poland, but he has never quite broken through to the forefront so far as regular performances are concerned. On this occasion we heard a rarely played work that could justifiably described as a masterpiece. It came into being in 1925 when Szymanowski was commissioned to write a piece for a wealthy Warsaw businessman whose wife had just died; personal emotional impetus was then provided by the sudden death of the composer’s niece.
The Stabat Mater is a setting of a six-part medieval poem that depicts the pain of Mary, Mother of God, as she witnesses then death of her son, Jesus on the cross. Szymanowski set the poem to be sung in either the original Latin or Polish: the latter version is usually performed, as it was on this occasion. As one would expect from this composer, the orchestration is rich and extraordinarily imaginative, and there are emotionally powerful contributions from a trio of soloists and a chorus. Most of the music is slow in pace, but such is its quality and range of invention that a potent atmosphere of agony and grief is vividly sustained over the work’s 23-minute length.
Jurowski directed an acutely sensitive performance. The excellence of the LPO’s contribution might be taken for granted, but the choral contribution was also magnificently dramatic and rich in tone. Of the soloists Elzbieta Szmytka’s clear-toned soprano voice was a joy to hear, as was Anne Sofie Otter’s mezzo: Andrzej Dobber’s rather strained, hooting baritone was merely adequate.
Fortunately the performance of Zemlinsky’s Six Maeterlinck Songs of 1910 preceded the Szymanowski. If it has been the other way round the contrast between a gifted composer and a great one would have been more sharply drawn. Maeterlinck’s texts deal with the subject of doomed and lost love, and they reflect Zemlinsky’s experience of losing his much-loved Alma Schindler to Mahler some years earlier. Ironically, the score is heavily influenced by Mahler stylistically: the orchestration is imaginative, with piquant touches from celesta and harmonium, and the solo vocal line is attractively drawn. But the quality of musical invention is unexceptional, though attractive to the ear. Fortunately none of the songs are of a length to cause ennui.
It is perhaps ungallant to mention that the soloist, Anne Sophie von Otter, will be 61 years old in May. Her voice has understandably lost a little of its youthful bloom, but she is generally in fine vocal state, and as a richly experienced singer she gave a characterful account of the solo part.
The first part of the concert comprised Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony. Though not so highly regarded as the composer’s three later symphonies it has many fine qualities and is only let down by a less than inspired finale. Jurowski’s direction of the work was clear-cut and precise: though there was plenty of atmosphere at the work’s opening it was carefully controlled and graded and in the allegro section the playing was taut and highly disciplined. Even in the third movement Andante elegiaco there was no relaxation: the phrasing did have a heart-easing quality, but it was deftly managed, and quite sophisticated and cerebral. There was some superbly mercurial playing in the Scherzo, but it was again carefully supervised. Jurowski chose to try and elevate the finale with sharply drawn rhythms and accents, and it was brilliantly done in its own way.
If there are other, more warmly emotional ways of performing this symphony, Jurowski’s approach was highly effective in its own way, and very satisfying at its own level.