A battle of love and death: Jurowski and LPO triumph in Wagner, Strauss and Mahler

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, R. Strauss, Mahler: Sarah Wegener (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 13.11.2019. (CSa)

Sarah Wegener (c) Simon Wagner

WagnerTristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I

R. Strauss – Selection of Songs

Mahler – Symphony No.5

Idealised love, unfulfilled desire and death frequently serve as the impetus for the creation of great art. They were certainly the catalyst which linked the works presented last week by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski in a ravishing programme of Wagner, Strauss and Mahler. The poet Mathilde Wesendonck was Richard Wagner’s muse, and the inspiration for his erotic masterpiece Tristan and Isolde. Soprano Pauline de Ahna was the wife of Richard Strauss for whom he wrote a glorious series of orchestral songs, and it was to Alma Mahler that her new husband Gustav dedicated one of his loveliest compositions, the Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony.

Jurowski has been Principal Conductor of the LPO since 2007, and he and his players have established their credentials as accomplished Wagnerians, with recent and widely acclaimed Glyndebourne productions of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Their richly sonorous account of the Tristan Act I Prelude lived up to expectations. Slow and full of yearning but never excessively so, it served as an intoxicating introduction to the concert.

Soprano Diana Damrau was to have performed the selection of seven early Strauss songs but illness led to her last-minute replacement by Sarah Wegener, whose lovely and expressive voice was somewhat dwarfed by the Royal Festival Hall’s size and challenging acoustics. Nonetheless, she offered up a fragrant, beautifully articulated ‘Ständchen’, whose innocence she contrasted to great effect with a dreamily seductive rendition of ‘Freundliche Vision’. ‘Wiegenlied’, a gentle lullaby setting of a poem by Richard Dehmel, was tenderly sung, and in ‘Morgen!’, Wegener’s voice floated serenely above a sweet solo violin accompaniment from the orchestra’s leader, Pieter Schoeman.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a searing but tightly controlled performance of one work, Mahler’s mighty Fifth Symphony. Jurowski is neither an extravagant or showy conductor. His gestures are concise and elegant, and his baton is wielded with a surgeon’s precision. He stands erect and still, using his upper body and wonderfully expressive hands to convey his instructions. At the start of the symphony’s first movement, a single, clean, downward sweep of Jurowski’s right arm brought in the baleful trumpet solo – an eerie presentiment of war. In the succeeding Trauermarsch, or funeral march, Mahler’s specific markings – ‘At a measured pace, strict, like a cortège’ – were observed to the letter. Jurowski kept his players on a tight leash throughout the performance without restricting artistic freedom and creativity. In the second movement, which the composer insisted should be played ‘with utmost vehemence’, Jurowski pushed his open palms towards the orchestra in repeated gestures of restraint as if to contain the blazing brass and spectral woodwind. This served only to increase the music’s raw and terrifying energy. A brilliant burst of horns heralded the frenzied Scherzo, described by Mahler as ‘primeval – a foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound’ into which he wove a series of crazy Viennese waltzes. These were punctuated by plaintive horn calls, skilfully executed by principal John Ryan. Mahler’s tender Adagietto for strings and harp – the love letter to Alma – unfolded like a shimmering cloth of gold. Lasting eight minutes, the movement could have been extended a little longer to tap every last drop of viscous sweetness, but Jurowski boldly chose to avoid the risk of a sentimental reading. An exuberant, brilliantly played Rondo Finale testified to the triumph of love over death.

Chris Sallon

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