An Unforgettable Mahler 8 from Jurowski and the LPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tallis, Mahler: Judith Howarth (soprano/Magna Peccatrix), Anne Schwanewilms (soprano/Una poenitentium), Sofia Fomina (soprano/Mater Gloriosa), Michaela Selinger (mezzo-soprano/Mulier Samaritana), Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano/Maria Aegyptiaca), Barry Banks (tenor/Doctor Marianus), Stephen Gadd (baritone/Pater Ecstaticus); Matthew Rose (bass/Pater Profundus); Tiffin Boys’ Choir; Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; London Symphony Chorus; London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski. Royal Festival Hall, London, 8.4.2017. (CC)

Tallis Spem in alium

Mahler – Symphony No.8 in E flat, “Symphony of a Thousand”

After everything, this was a remarkable reading, and a remarkable concert. I say “after everything” because of the many changes in soloists for the Mahler. Exeunt stage left Melanie Diener, Sarah Connolly, Anna Larsson, Torsten Kerl and Matthias Goerne, stars all. Diener and Kerl were still in the printed programme on the night. Enter in their place Judith Howarth, Michaela Selinger, Patricia Bardon, Barry Banks and Stephen Gadd. That we got there at all is something of a miracle; that we managed to work out who was singing was another.

But then, Mahler’s Eighth is about miracles. Its very heft stretches feasibility. It really deserves an (uninterrupted) evening all to itself, but in celebration of the London Philharmonic Choir’s 70th anniversary, we heard first Tallis’ Spem in alium, a work that itself stretched the perceived possibilities of its age. The choir spilled out to the sides of the stalls of the Festival Hall, enabling a sonic horseshoe of Renaissance polyphony in deliberately dimmed light. The performance of the Tallis was a fine one. No Tallis Scholars scholarship here, but a nicely blended, touching account of a masterwork.

Then came the blaze of light in both sound – the RFH organ resplendent and imposing – and in photons for the opening of the Mahler; one could justifiably call the effect “electric” in multiple senses. Yes, there was a “Lighting Designer”, Chahine Yavroyan, who at various times plunged parts of the stage into darkness, at others added colour effects. In tandem with this was the full use of the space, from the boxes (Anne Schwanewilms in Part II right up top, boys in Part II in boxes stage left, vocal soloists in front of the organ rather than at the back of the stage). The whole was about drama: is this a hybrid symphony/opera/oratorio? Jurowski’s approach honoured the drama as well as sculpting the structure exceptionally. But of course, Mahler’s music contains all the drama one needs …

More serious, certainly less intellectually or emotionally stimulating, was whether one needed an interval between the two parts of the Mahler or whether that was to feed the hungry tills at the bar. It felt wrong, sacrilegious almost. There is a big change between the two parts (Latin to German, for one thing; Latin hymn to Goethe) but its contrast should surely be experienced as a juxtaposition. Or what the Tallis/Mahler electric shock judged enough excitement for one night?

Once underway though, the Mahler Symphony was given a splendid performance. Initially there seemed to be a Solti-like relentless drive to Jurowski’s way, coupled with an underlying lyricism. A contradiction in terms? Well, it worked. Which is more than can be said for the chorus redistributing itself mid-movement, like a huge colony of ants caught up in a ninth-century-hymn-meets-Mahler maelstrom. The children’s chorus (Tiffin Boys’ Choir) sang the first movement with hands cupped to mouths, which did seem to get their contribution across, but also helped with the visuals.

Jurowski’s way of delineating his textures so clearly was remarkable, and a massive bonus. The sheer massiveness of the piece was never in doubt (three sets of cymbals for the return of the opening); but we heard great detail and tenderness here, too. As to the soloists, Judith Howarth had the necessary high notes, Barry Banks gave his all enthusiastically (although he is no Bayreuth Heldentenor). Matthew Rose was the bedrock of the soloists, impeccably reliable, intensely musical and solid, and positively imperious in the second part as Pater Profundus. Balance was well judged between soloists and orchestra.

The second part (again in multiple senses as it was the second part of the concert too) found Jurowski’s conception truly justifying itself. The long orchestral introduction was magnificent, the clear result of much rehearsal. Here, God becomes Goddess (Nature), and Mahler reflects the wham-bang-thank-you-ma’am pleadings to the very male God/Holy Spirit of the first part for the more sensual, long-range approach of the Divine (Eternal) Feminine who is hymned at the very close. And Jurowski knows how to plan a climax. The organ turned purple – the most spiritual colour – and one assumes the link was that this is the true route to the Divine. Balance was generally exceptionally managed. Banks was lost in the mix at one point; and towards the end, at his ‘Blicket auf!’, one did rather feel the loss of a Heldentenor; Schwanewilms was positively radiant at ‘Er kommt zurück.’ It was great to see Patricia Bardon, most recently triumphant her role of Arsace in Handel’s Partenope at ENO, on form as Maria Aegyptiaca. As the end came into sight, orchestral and vocal balance was never sacrificed. Brass blazed from one of the highest boxes; the standing ovation from the audience following the close was inevitable.

Despite some doubts as to the wisdom of the actual format of the evening, this remains an unforgettable Mahler 8.

A final word goes to the pre-concert event, with the LPO Soundworks Ensemble in the Clore Ballroom providing live soundtracks to a trio of films by young film-makers. This is a vital part of the LPO’s activities: youngsters aged 14-19 work alongside LPO musicians and experts in the arts. This was the culmination of this Easter’s Creative Week, film-makers and musicians interacting to create a live event. The three films, Father/Daughter (exploring the relationship there), Paper Faces (themes of identity and conformity inan office surroundings) and a final montage of experimental footage set to rhythmic, upbeat music. The music was collectively written and performed with zeal. Deep, important work.

Colin Clarke

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