06 Feb 2011

Jurowski, Das klagende Lied

Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic have repeated their success with Mahler’s Das klagende Lied at the Royal Festival Hall.

In 1880, while still a student at the Vienna Conservatoire, Mahler wrote the libretto for his cantata Das klagende Lied, an early work that he would later describe as his Opus 1. Part 1 (Waldmarchen) tells of two brothers — young knights — the elder one murdering the younger in order to win the hand of a queen. Part 2 (Der Spielmann) tells how a wandering minstrel finds a bone from the dead knight’s body and carves a flute from it. When he plays the instrument the voice of the dead brother emerges, recounting how he had been murdered. In part 3 (Hochzeitstuck), the guilty brother’s crime is exposed to the whole court when he borrows the visiting minstrel’s flute and tries to play it during the wedding revelries. The shock causes the queen to faint, at which point the castle collapses. Based on a folk-tale retold by Ludwig Bechstein and the brothers Grimm, this brooding Romantic tale drew a suitably full-blooded score from Mahler, looking back to Wagner on the one hand, and forward to his own First Symphony on the other.

The composer completed the 3-movement score in 1880 but had no luck in getting it performed. Only in 1901, and after Mahler had twice revised the orchestration and abandoned Part 1 altogether, did a performance take place in Vienna under the composer’s direction. These days, performances are sometimes given of Part 1 coupled with Parts 2 and 3 in Mahler’s revision, but in this reading by the LPO under Jurowski we heard the whole cantata as first conceived by Mahler, and with his original orchestration. Back in 2007 it seemed as though Jurowski was still finding his way into the Mahler idiom. There were many vivid incidents, but rather less a sense of dramatic cohesion.

Three years on, it was striking how much Jurowski’s understanding of the piece had matured, as he expertly charted the drama’s progress, integrating the various episodes and vividly capturing every mood, whether of sylvan charm or of treacherous murder and its consequences. Amongst many instances one could cite, there was the intense energy of the opening pages of Part 2 and the Wedding Scene, the touching sense of repose as the younger brother lays down to rest; and the dark tones that accompanied the flute’s revelation of the murder.

In achieving this success, Jurowski was superbly abetted by the LPO (every department playing with total commitment) and the London Philharmonic Choir singing wonderfully. Members of Glyndebourne Chorus sang solo parts from within the chorus ranks, and centrally positioned at the front of the choir were the soloists: the well-focused and fine-toned Melanie Diener (soprano) and Christopher Purves (baritone); plus Christianne Stotijn (mezzo) and Michael Konig (tenor) singing confidently. The parts of the young knights were divided between a highly assured Jacob Thorn and the valiant Leopold Benedict.

The placing of these singers at centre-front of the choir, however good an idea it may have seemed in theory, was arguably an error of judgment, for none of the singers was able to make a proper impact, which they surely would have done had they been positioned at the front of the platform. Likewise, the off-stage band (here incorporating shrill E flat clarinets, military flugelhorns, and cornet, again in accordance with Mahler’s initial intentions) seemed more distant than was perhaps intended.

Such qualifications aside, there can be no gainsaying that, from first note to last, Jurowski and his assembled forces produced a most compelling and exhilarating performance, full of myriad theatrical touches. And while Mahler, during the 1890s, may have decided that Part 1 was superfluous, a performance as vivid and as integrated as this made a very strong case for his original vision.

The first half of the concert opened with Ligeti’s Lontano for large orchestra, which was used by Stanley Kubrick in his film The Shining. Jurowski balanced the strings, wind and brass for which Lontano is scored, with notable refinement, creating continuously fascinating textures. Overall, though, the result was less shadowy, less nebulous, than the piece ideally requires.

Lontano was followed by Bartok’s First Violin Concerto, in which the soloist was the Hungarian Barnab├ís Kelemen, who played a 1742 Guarneri (ex Denes Kovacs), an instrument blessed with a gratifyingly rich tone. This two-movement (as never completed) work, written in 1907-8 when Bartok was in love with his student Stefi Geyer, was given a performance fully attuned to the work’s folk roots and emotional impulses. Kelemen’s view of the piece happily wedded earthiness to lyricism and reached right into the heart of the piece. The success of this reading owed an equal debt to the alert and idiomatic accompaniment of Jurowski and the orchestra.

Clearly delighted to offer his audience further evidence of his remarkable talents, Kelemen gave two encores: the Presto from Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin and the Sarabande from JS Bach’s Sonata in D minor. All the qualities observable in the concerto, plus a heightened virtuosity, were evident in the Presto, whilst in the Partita there was a fusion of deep emotion and nobility, as well as a beauty of phrasing, which made a deep impression on a clearly much affected audience.

Richard Landau