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Vladimir Jurowski [Dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna; Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists]
02 Feb 2011

Jurowski conducts Zemlinsky

This looked an enticing programme before Vladimir Jurowski, in conversation with the Southbank Centre’s Head of Music, Marshall Marcus, divulged its secrets.

Péter Eötvös: Shadows (British premiere of orchestral version); Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto no.2 in A major, S.125; Alexander von Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony, op.18

Alexander Markovich (piano); Melanie Diener (soprano); Thomas Hampson (baritone); London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Wednesday 26 January 2011.

Above: Vladimir Jurowski [Dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna; Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists]


It was, Jurowski told us, to be considered as part of a larger programme in conjunction with the London Philharmonic’s Saturday concert (Ligeti’s Lontano, Bartók’s First Violin Concerto, and Mahler’s Das klagende Lied). Anniversary boys Liszt and Mahler would be celebrated and contextualised. One might make too much of that; Jurowski mentioned the extraordinary late works of Liszt, but the Second Piano Concerto is not among them. (Most are for piano solo, in any case.) Likewise, though he lamented the neglect of so much of Liszt’s œuvre, as opposed to Mahler’s, we heard neither a choral work nor a symphonic poem, but a relatively mainstream piece, albeit one I was hearing for the first time in concert. Nevertheless, the sense of Liszt, Mahler, and three Hungarian composers sharing a continuum into which it would not be so very difficult also to fit Zemlinsky, offered much to think about. It was a pity that the planned repeat performances in Budapest had to be cancelled in light of economic circumstances, but at the very least Hungary’s Presidency of the European Union could be celebrated.

That conversation took place between the first and second works, since Péter Eötvös’s Shadows (1996) required an unusual seating arrangement, necessitating considerable rearrangement for the Liszt concerto. Shadows, for flute, amplified clarinet, and ensemble or orchestra, here received the first British performance of its orchestral performance. On a first hearing, it did not overstay its welcome, though I am not sure that it proved a revelation either. It seemed well performed, not least by the two soloists, flautist Sue Thomas and clarinettist Nicholas Carpenter. They held centre stage, along with Jurowski, two percussionists and celeste player, Catherine Edwards. Two groups of wind instruments, backs to the audience, acted as ‘shadows’ to the soloists, whilst two groups of strings, sparingly deployed, made up the rear (facing forwards). In three movements, the work opens with dance-music: so far, so typically or stereotypically ‘Hungarian’. Contrast between regularity and irregularity caught the ear. Neo-Bartókian string and percussion sonorities proved attractive in the second part, at least two mobile telephones less so. The arabesque dialogue between flute and clarinet, with which the third movement opens, also brought Bartók, this time his ‘night music’, to mind, the prominent part for celesta doing nothing to dispel — and why should it? — that association. Space and time are clearly preoccupations here, though Boulez and Stockhausen, for instance, would seem to have gone further, earlier. I may well, however, have missed the point.

Alexander Markovich joined the orchestra for the Liszt work. This was not to be a flawless performance — there were a few occasions on which soloist and orchestra fell out of sync — but its spirit impressed. The white heat of Sviatoslav Richter’s astounding recording with the equally astounding LSO and Kirill Kondrashin — a Liszt Desert Island disc, especially coupled with the B minor Sonata — may not have been felt, but this was arguably a more exploratory performance, doubtless aided by Jurowski’s conception of the work as more a symphonic poem with piano than a typical concerto. (He referred to its single movement and monothematicism.) The LPO players responded with verve and subtlety — yes, you read that word correctly. They ensured, for instance, that the all-important woodwind opening struck just the right, neo-Mozartian serenading note. To that, Markovich could respond with due delicacy, rapture even, all performers making clear the unorthodox nature of what could so easily resemble a mere virtuoso showpiece. The fluidity of the pianist’s response to the score was especially noteworthy, though all players were careful to ensure that this never descended into formlessness. Virtuosity was present, of course, for instance in Markovich’s thundering octave passages, but always, it seemed, at the music’s service. Sharply profiled rhythmically where necessary, the performance never became hard-driven; indeed, there was always plenty of light and shade. Lower strings impressed with depth of tone in the lead up to the beautiful duet between piano and cello (Kristine Blaumane). Liszt’s chamber music, like Wagner’s, tended to form part of other works, but it is no less chamber music for that. The march transformation, which some puritans have condemned as ‘vulgar’, sounded nothing of the sort; instead, it was dramatically stirring — and, more important, clear in its thematic derivation. Liszt suffers terribly from poor or mediocre performances; he did not here. As a sparkling encore, virtuosic in every sense, Markovich offered a transcription of the ‘Skaters’ Waltz’ from Les patineurs. I assume that it was Liszt’s, but not having heard it before, cannot be sure.

Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, which I have long thought close to a masterpiece, formed the second half to the concert. It is not so long since the Royal Festival Hall heard what remains a relative rarity; Esa-Pekka Salonen led a truly outstanding performance from the Philharmonia in March 2009. If ultimately Jurowski’s reading did not quite convince me as Salonen’s had, it was interestingly different and proved in many respects complementary. The opening drum rolls resounded magnificently, but I felt much of the first movement unsettled in the wrong way, Jurowski’s direction rendering the bar lines all too audible, however fine the orchestral contribution in itself. Even in this movement, however, the music settled down, and many instrumental details proved sharply etched, not least the crucial flute lines. (The flute is as important to Rabindranath Tagore’s verse as it is to Das Lied von der Erde, a dangerous comparison, which often obscures as much as it reveals, yet which retains some validity when drawn with care.) Moreover, Jurowski proved alert to the teeming of those lines in combination, a combination that edged towards Schoenberg. Zemlinsky was by no means a merely backward-looking composer in 1923.

What of the baritone soloist, Thomas Hampson? Response would largely, I suspect, be a matter of taste. There could be no doubting the intelligence of his verbal response, nor the quality of his diction. (The latter left no one in doubt that he had, in the fifth movement, substituted ‘diesem Zauber’ for ‘deinem Zauber’.) However, for those for whom this is more important, there could be no doubting the vanished lustre of his voice as a voice. The contrast is not quite so simple as that, for sometimes — the final movement was a particularly notable example — the voice had gained a pronounced beat; moreover, pitch could sometimes be more hinted at than centred. Nevertheless, Hampson’s sincerity remained a palpable constant.

Melanie Diener, likewise, did not impress in terms of vocal beauty. However, her performance, in tandem with Jurowski’s, hinted at an operatic quality, perhaps frustrated, to Zemlinsky’s inspiration. It is certainly not the only way to perform the work, and sometimes lessened the importance of song and symphony, but at its best, it revealed aspects one might not have suspected. For instance, the fourth movement, ‘Sprich zu mir, Geliebter!’, was taken daringly slowly, yet it soon became apparent that its reimagination almost as an operatic scene could draw attention to the dark malevolence (Die Frau ohne Schatten?) of Zemlinsky’s writing. As for much of the performance, Jurowski highlighted modernistic timbres, where Salonen had emphasised the work’s sometimes overwhelming — and undoubtedly sincere — late-Romanticism. Flutes glanced towards Pierrot lunaire, perhaps even to Le marteau sans maître. (Now there is a thought: Boulez conducts Zemlinsky? Probably not, though he has recently been performing Szymanowski.) The dialogue between solo violin (leader, Pieter Schoeman) and cello (Blaumane again), which introduces the fourth movement, not only granted an opportunity, well taken, for soloists to shine, but was musically captured as a dissonant yet still tonal turning point.

There was drama, too, quite in keeping with, indeed necessary to, the operatic conception. The interlude following the young girl’s song (no.2), in which she laments to her mother the passing of the young prince’s carriage and its crushing of her ruby chain, displayed real anger, putting this listener in mind of passages and attitudes from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. And yet, for all the tugging away from a symphonic conception, when the voices fell silent, the final movement’s coda proved integrative in properly symphonic fashion: thematic and dramatic concerns now sounded as one. If I did not quite feel convinced that the different approaches always cohered, there was much to admire and much to consider.

The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 1 February. Readers may therefore make up their own minds, and are warmly encouraged to do so.

Mark Berry

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