Royal Festival Hall
Kurtág – Stele, op.33
Mahler – Symphony no.2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’
Adriana Kučerová (soprano)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)
This is not the first time Kurtág’s Stele and Mahler’s Second Symphony have been performed together. The former’s association with memorial and the latter’s focus upon resurrection are suggestive. Likewise, the large forces common to both – this must be one of the few cases when musicians exit the stage in preparation for a work by Mahler – make practical and doubtless economic sense in programming terms. Michael Gielen in his Hänssler recording presents both works with Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre. The Mahler is, however, more often than not programmed alone, so we were hardly short-changed.
Stele received an excellent performance. Written for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra when Kurtág was composer in residence, the London Philharmonic proved more than equal to the task. So did Vladimir Jurowski in succession to Claudio Abbado. The opening proved expectant in its expansion, the initial pitch of G dissipated through microtonal subversion. The beauty of the doleful woodwind sounds to which this led put me in mind of another memorial, the Berg Violin Concerto, and in particular the Bach chorale used therein, but also of something older, antique even, the Greek world from which the piece gains its title. Guest principal flautist Mattia Petrilli, both here and in the Mahler, was extremely impressive. In the ensuing controlled hysteria, one truly heard how huge the orchestra was, yet Jurowksi ensured that a fine sense of rhythmic momentum was maintained, even in the static passages. At the end, the hints – arguably more than that – of a funeral procession sounded almost as if for Mahler himself.
Jurowski’s account of the Mahler symphony was highly unusual. He has not, at least in London, conducted much of the composer’s music so far, but it is clear that he had given great consideration to this performance. I was not quite sure that everything cohered into a whole, but there could be no doubt that here was someone who had something to say about the composer and his music. This was not just another Mahler Second, for, at a time when that music is arguably over-exposed, we need more than ever a reason to perform it beyond filling concert halls (that in itself, of course, quite a reversal in fortune).
Jurowski began with Boulezian attack but allied to a far swifter tempo; indeed, I am not sure that I have ever heard the music taken so quickly. The brass sometimes blared a bit and there was the odd horn fluff. However, Jurowski displayed a good ear for orchestral detail, not least the all-important, often obscured figures for double bass. The English horn’s sadness put me in mind of Tristan’s shepherd song. Moments of stasis revealed a kinship with Kurtág, though I wondered whether they might have been slightly exaggerated to that end. This, then, was a bracingly modernist first movement, though sometimes perhaps too much; Boulez and Gielen both know that this is a Romantic work too. And then, later on, at the close of the development, there was an almost Bernstein-like hysteria: magnificently performed, but was it really compatible with what had gone before? The movement as a whole came across as somewhat disjointed, especially when the recapitulation reverted, as I suppose it must, to the rushed opening tempo. Portamento for the second subject was beautiful in itself, but sounded in context a little appliqué. Perhaps Jurowski was saying that such unresolved oppositions are what Mahler is about; certainly that was the impression I gained from the performance of the symphony as a whole. One thing for which to be extremely grateful: he rightly silenced the idiotic applause that began at the end of the movement. There was not the length of silence that Mahler requested between this and the second movement, but then I have never been to a performance respecting that wish. Perhaps it is simply impractical. Instead, a barrage of coughing and low-level chatter accompanied the entrance of soloists and chorus.
The Andante moderato was much slower than I have ever heard: considerably slower than even what used to be considered – and by some of us still us – the just tempo for a minuet, and certainly more akin to a ‘slow movement’ than usual. It was charmingly nostalgic, the warmth of string tone, especially in the cello section, contrasting with the steely gleam of the first movement. The minor mode trio sections were very insistent rhythmically – again echoes of Kurtág – though perhaps one was made a little too aware of the bar lines. The effect at so slow a tempo of the pizzicato passages was glacial, the harp unusually and welcomely prominent. I liked this movement very much, though it was decidedly non- or even anti-traditional.
It was good to have the scherzo’s opening kettledrum clatter silence the recidivist coughers. In Jurowski’s hands, this movement was a sardonic danse macabre, the ‘witch’s brew’ of which Mahler himself once spoke. The trio was raucous, vulgar even; there was no attempt to iron out its rusticity. Indeed, its highlighting made that sound unusually banal. I could almost see the village ‘characters’ dancing. Again, I was set thinking that Jurowski’s idea might be to incorporate ‘everything’ into Mahler’s world; after all, the composer famously told Sibelius that a symphony should be a world. The performance as a whole was coming to resemble – and would continue to do so – a vast symphonic poem, which of course is how, in the guise of Totenfeier, it set out. It was a bit like a conflation of Liszt’s Faust and Dante symphonies – and then some. If my preference would be for something more symphonically integrative, I undoubtedly heard many new perspectives upon a work I flattered myself I knew well.
Urlicht was perhaps too ‘different’ in conception. It lacked the hush I think it really needs, being presented instead as a simple, peasant-like explanation of how things will turn out in the hereafter. Christianne Stotijn brought a Lieder-singer’s attention to the meaning of the words, her diction superb. And the spatial dimension of the finale was presaged by having a wind band above the orchestral platform answer that initial, imploring ‘O Röschen rot!’
With the opening sound of the finale, we reverted to the modernism of the first movement. Once again, there was rhythmic insistence, but not always to the benefit of the longer line. The off-stage brass could be fractionally ahead of the on-stage musicians – at least from where I was sitting – but Jurowski brought them into line. This movement received a brazenly pictorial account, cinematic even. I fancied, once again, that I could see the characters, this time members of a procession; I certainly heard their cries. The spatial dimension was heightened immeasurably when one heard the last trumpet from various directions of the beyond. Moreover, the choral contribution was superb, both in diction and tonal variegation. ‘Sterben werd’ ich, um zu Leben!’ (‘I shall die so as to live’) and ‘Aufersteh’n,’ the assurance that we should rise again, sent shivers down my spine. Now I was utterly convinced and was reminded what truly astounding music this is. As the bells rang out – and rang out they most certainly did – one could hear, if this time not see, something of whatever it might be that lies beyond this world.