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Performances

Vladimir Jurowski [Photo © Matthias Creutziger]
24 Oct 2019

Ovid and Klopstock clash in Jurowski’s Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’

There were two works on this London Philharmonic Orchestra programme given by Vladimir Jurowski – Colin Matthews’s Metamorphosis and Gustav Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’. The way Jurowski played it, however, one might have been forgiven for thinking we were listening to a new work by Mahler, something which may not have been lost on those of us who recalled that Matthews had collaborated with Deryck Cooke on the completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

Ovid and Klopstock clash in Jurowski’s Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Vladimir Jurowski [Photo © Matthias Creutziger]

 

Metamorphosis is the final part of a larger work, Renewal, based on Ovid’s epic poem about myth, creation, transformation, love and deification. But elements of Ovid’s poem have much to do with violence, and this is not a work which wears its tension between art and nature with a cloak of uncertainty about it. Indeed, much of Ovid’s Metamorphosen is entirely in conflict with the natural world – a theme that does sit neatly with some of Mahler’s Wunderhorn symphonies. The problem is, Matthews’s Metamorphosis is the end piece of a larger work and it follows on from a scherzo, Broken Symmetry, of uncommon violence – it’s just none of these Ovidian themes penetrate this particular Matthews piece. Musically, it feels entirely like the ending of one work, and not like the preface to another. Metamorphosis might open on a deep-pedal C, which remains somewhat rooted throughout, just as the first movement of the Mahler opens on C minor – but the hushed, reflective coda with its strangely muted chorus is in direct contrast to the 42 bars of the funeral march with its oppressive lower strings which explodes like a storm at the opening of the Mahler. Simply elided into one another, this wasn’t a natural fit at all.

Jurowski’s approach to Mahler’s Second is refracted through some very cool lenses. This was not a performance which proved notably gripping when it came to the much deeper thought process – there was never much doubt that Jurowski had the sound the London Philharmonic could project in mind than any perceived notion that the decibels had concepts of anger, fear or terror beyond that. It could be thrilling, but you felt you were being short-changed on the expressive range. It’s not as if Mahler doesn’t elaborate his score like a kind of musical Baedeker: when he hints that phrases in the first movement should be likeMeeresstille (‘Calm like the sea’) or that there are marked differences between piano and pianissimo one wants to hear to them. There was little of that on offer here. But the fluidity of Jurowski’s tempo did make a difference in the Andante Moderato where the staccato strings and the pacing of the ländler were quite distinctive. The counterpoint between the strings and the woodwind wasn’t just refined it was mysterious. The Scherzo plunges between dissonant and turbulent surges (typically measured out in oodles of high-powered accents by Jurowski and the LPO) but it’s also a movement that prefaces ‘Urlicht’ and which has complete musical union.

Perhaps Jurowski needed this moment – the setting of Mahler’s Wunderhorn text, and an alto to give it meaning – to shift the emotional axis of this performance and it seemed right in the context of this conductor’s forward approach to the symphony to have placed Sarah Connolly in the choir stalls. This is a mezzo with a voice swathed in the most orchid-like of colours and heliotropic in its conviction to turn towards the Arcadian. She shone against the orchestra’s wind players off stage – and never exposed herself against the harp and solo violin which Jurowski shaped with the kind of divine reverence he had forsaken before. Diction was impeccable.

If this proved a turning point in the performance it is because apocalypse rarely proves impossible to conduct badly. Jurowski’s full-blooded descent into the terror of the Day of Judgement, the scale of the prophesised anger in the playing, the proclamations of the Dies Irae and its trembling power were all graphically done. Timpani, drums and tam-tam had a torrential, crust-shattering conviction – an earthquake of sound that tore through the orchestra. Mahler had wanted to paint a musical image of fright, and Jurowski gave us that; the orchestra could collapse its weight below the bar line with a crushing weight that felt like a burial of sound, but simultaneously scale above as if trembling outside the gates of heaven. The opposing directions of off-stage brass and timpani sounded truly stereophonic.

If Jurowski hadn’t always been attuned to Mahler’s score markings, in the Resurrection Chorale, based on Friedrick Klopstock’s ode, the chorus, soprano and mezzo were closer to the text and cleaner than one expected. The first two stanzas were just about Misterioso – the ppp of the voices quiet enough to be distinct from the third stanza which Mahler writes as piano. Not until the fourth stanza does Mahler increase the dynamic range and here the LPO choir shifted gear, but with enough in reserve for the final stanza to be sung at fff.

You always come away from those closing of pages of Mahler’s Second with the impression you have heard one of the greatest conclusions to any symphony – and you have. But it is a long journey to get to this moment of finality and renewal. The problem with this performance began before the symphony had even started, and for long stretches of it Jurowski seemed more concerned with projecting the power of the music rather than giving us anything of note behind it. This was aloof, sometimes dispassionate, Mahler. There was much to admire in the playing, but this symphony requires so much more.

Marc Bridle

Sofia Fomina – soprano, Sarah Connolly – mezzo-soprano, London Philharmonic Choir, London Youth Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra – Vladimir Jurowski

19th October 2019, Royal Festival Hall, London

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