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Reviews

16 Nov 2019

Sarah Wegener sings Strauss and Jurowski’s shattering Mahler

A little under a month ago, I reflected on Vladimir Jurowski’s tempi in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’. That willingness to range between extremes, often within the same work, was a very striking feature of this second concert, which also fielded a Mahler symphony - this time the Fifth. But we also had a Wagner prelude and Strauss songs to leave some of us scratching our heads.

Mahler, Strauss and Wagner: LPO conducted by Vladimir Jurowski

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Sarah Wegener

Photo credit: Marvin Stellman

 

There are, it’s probably true to say, very few conductors who, as Karl Böhm once said, dare to conduct the prelude to Tristan und Isolde as Wagner wrote it. Böhm was specifically referring to Leonard Bernstein, though he never bothered in any of his performances to take the Bernstein approach himself. Vladimir Jurowski doesn’t either - though, in parts, his performance sometimes felt even more oddly phrased. Why observe the first bar rest, but substantially shorten the second, for example? But it was possible in Jurowski’s performance to ignore the shortcomings in some of his more creative moments (the full-beam dash into the climax, for one) and focus on the searing playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. You heard it first on the ascent of the cellos, and that astonishing sigh - which here just opened out with breathtaking sadness and pain. The phrasing of the woodwind, and an oboe which burned like incense and then wilted into silence. This is music that rides a wave and it can sometimes give the impression of being uncontrolled. Jurowski - like so many conductors - sees rapture but little else. What I missed here was the struggle, the exhaustion, the profound psychological darkness that is in this music as the climax capitulates into unsettled calmness (I have never forgotten Sir Colin Davis conducting it just this way). Jurowski’s way with the prelude might have worked better had we got the Liebestod - as it was, the concert ending seemed unsatisfactory.

The pairing in the first half of Wagner with seven Richard Strauss songs was an entirely natural fit. Sarah Wegener, a late replacement for Diana Damrau, who had clearly struggled with Strauss in New York a few days earlier, didn’t always feel entirely comfortable in some of the songs - in a program which remained unchanged (except in order). Wegener’s voice is a touch darker than Damrau’s, but it is also less quicksilver, less inclined to favour an agile approach and sometimes struggles with the precision of her breath control. On the other hand, there is a purity of expressiveness, a willingness to read deeply into the textual meaning of these songs which is memorable.

Jurowski applied some dangerously slow tempos to a few of the songs on this program. Whether Damrau would have tolerated the extremely broad playing in ‘Wiegenlied’ or ‘Morgen’ is debatable; in fact, these were two songs where Wegener excelled simply because she was able to penetrate the text with some startling originality and beautiful phrasing. ‘Morgen’, particularly, in which the voice seems to just appear from a void, was striking for its exceptional richness of tone, but yet it was as fragile and delicate as the most eggshell-like of porcelain. Here the widening of the tempo seemed ideal simply because the song was fragrant with the endlessness it tries to achieve. Wegener didn’t lack pathos either; it felt like a perfect miniature of Straussian opulence.

‘Wiegenlied’, too, lived a little dangerously but Wegener was able to remind us that this is a song about fatherhood and the spirituality of a mother and child. If the voice strained a little above the stave this was a sign less of her ability to hit the note and more to simply hold its length. ‘Das Rosenband’, the first in this cycle on the program, was a little uneasy in approach - almost sensuous as a reading of the text, with impeccable phrasing, until that glorious ascent into heavenly ‘Paradise’ which never quite soared as it should.

‘Ständchen’ is rather like a painting, almost Debussyian in its imagery. Wegener clearly knows how to bring the text to life, how to make that brook babble, the trees bend, the mystery of moonlight cast a shadow and the flowers smell of their fragrance. If there was a problem, it was less her fault and more to do with Jurowski’s unwillingness to give much exigency to the rhythm - these were orchestral brushstrokes that sometimes felt thickly rendered.

Jurowski_Vladimir_2013b_PC__Roman_Gontcharov_300 (1).jpgVladimir Jurowski. Photo credit: Roman Gontcharov.

The original program had ‘Zueignung’ placed in the middle - an odd choice. In the end, this was the closing song and probably proved the most controversial. Jurowski’s tempo was extraordinarily slow. This was a performance less about Wegener and more about the orchestra, the intimacy suffocated at the expense of some quite outrageous sonorities concentrated elsewhere. Impassioned and ardent this song might be, but Wegener was constrained by the amplitude of the orchestra - her final ‘Dank’ so clipped it simply proved too taxing for her to sustain.

If there is one word to describe Jurowski’s performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony it is innovative. This was one of those Fifths which proved something of a revelation, controversial though it might have been. It felt particularly Russian in almost every way - grim, intentionally menacing, turbulent, brooding, desolate and teetering towards the manic. Often it was uncomfortable to hear - where one expected it sound Viennese it often found itself in the grip of wider East European revolution, where there should have been light there was darkness. There had been an opening Funeral March which looked back towards Wagner, and where one usually blithely gets trumpet solos which sound crystalline and polished here they fell like an executioners axe. The stormy second movement progressed less with the radiance of ecstasy where it should and more like a requiem for the dead. When collapse arrived it was like the shattering of stone until what you were left with was the shell of a totally destroyed edifice in a landscape that seemed torn apart. Even the Adagietto seemed restless, less a sigh or love song, and more an uneasy truce between emotions which seemed incapable of complete expression. There was little joy in the first section of the Finale - it felt stripped bare, but what a climax! At times, this was a performance which embraced the darkness of Wagner but looked forward to the bleakness of Shostakovich.

None of this would have been possible without the exceptional playing of the London Philharmonic. The strings were like thick black tar, the brass didn’t shimmer but blasted through the orchestra like a battalion in combat, flutes and clarinets screamed through their pages as if ripping the notes off them. Jurowski quite simply gave one of the most manic and shattering performances of a work which rarely gets heard this way.

Marc Bridle

Sarah Wegener (soprano), Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 13th November 2019.

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