Despite the LPO’s Fine Form Jurowski’s Conducting Disappoints

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Mozart and Mahler: Lucas Debargue (piano), Sofia Fomina (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 12.10.2016. (MB)

Haydn – Overture: Lo speziale
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor KV491
Mahler – Symphony No.4 in G major

It might sound odd to say that the Haydn overture was the biggest draw in the programme for me, but it probably was; it was certainly for me the most successful performance. Vivid, detailed, transparent: if only the performance had not been conducted so metronomically by Vladimir Jurowski. Still, there remained a fine sense of the piece, its character, its process. I do not know why Jurowski decided with a confused sense of theatre to move out of the way and have the excellent flute soloist lead the central section from the front, but it benefited from being less hard-driven. The joy of the briefest of reprises was well conveyed.

Lucas Debargue joined the orchestra for Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto. Alas, the best of this performance was to be heard in the orchestra, rather than the keyboard, the LPO’s long experience in Mozart proving telling, and the many virtues of the Haydn performance equally apparent here. Jurowski’s formalism was less overt and in some respects helped to clarify. Debargue’s performance, however, seemed more a performance observed, even imitated, rather than lived. Bar lines were all too audible, although there was some nice shading within, at least in the first movement. The problem, of course, was that Mozart’s writing here is anything but regular; the music often veered dangerously close to sounding like Clementi. In the development, the soloist seemed to be trying too hard to be ‘soulful’. As for the cadenza, I have no idea whose it was, but its strange attempt to marry generic ‘Baroque’ figuration with a few sentimental sub-nineteenth-century harmonies is not something I wish to hear repeated, especially at such length.

The slow movement’s opening phrase displayed the indifference of mezzo forte, almost as if the pianist were intent on showing that a modern piano should not be used here. Ornamentation sounded as if it had been imported from a very moderate idea of jazz. The tempo was spot on, though, and the LPO woodwind sounded truly enchanting. A highly sectional approach to the movement as a whole was replicated in the finale, Jurowski’s regimentation more troubling here, although the orchestra itself sounded splendid. We had another bizarre cadenza, confused of tonal direction, and very much of the ‘bad nineteenth century’.

‘Bizarre’ was one of the words that came to mind concerning Jurowski’s laboured approach to the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which chugged along joylessly, rather like a bad parody of a third-rate contemporary of Mozart – or an inept performance of Stravinsky. Again, it should be stressed that the playing of the LPO was first-rate; the fault lay with the conductor. Whether metronomic, again, or with strangely mechanical accelerandi, Jurowski seemed unable to let the music speak. At times, it dragged unbearably; then it would be pulled around, for no apparent reason. I began to fear that the movement would never end, not something I have ever felt before. The gentle grotesquerie of the second movement fared better, rhythms tight, but that tightness coming from within. There was still a good deal of that arbitrary stopping and starting, but less. I loved the alienated excellence of the LPO woodwind timbre; if only it had been put to better use.

There was some splendidly dark playing from the lower strings at the opening of the slow movement; the sweetness of the violins added to an intriguing sense of Brahms. It was somewhat stiffly conducted, but at least structure was generally clear, and there was a sense of Mahler’s debt here to Beethoven. Some very strange orchestral balances later on proved disconcerting, as did some distracting noises from both within and without the hall. The finale again benefited from fine orchestral playing; again, Jurowski’s conducting was mixed in quality, that mix essentially a combination of earlier tendencies. Sofia Fomina’s bright, often dramatic soprano did not always have the greatest diction, but she was better than many here. Jurowski, however, seemed determined to whip up orchestral brashness just for the sake of it, or in order to magnify a contrast upon its subsidence. Disappointing.

Mark Berry

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