Royal Festival Hall
Mendelssohn – Symphony no.5 in D major, op.107, ‘Reformation’
Mahler – Kindertotenlieder
Brahms – Symphony no.3 in F major, op.90
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)
This was worth it for the Mahler; the rest never settled. Kindertotenlieder received a fine performance from Sarah Connolly, the London Philharmonic, and, for the most part, Vladimir Jurowski. ‘Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n’ was over-conducted; one could hear as well as see every beat. Orchestral balances were often odd, not least with respect to an oddly prominent horn solo, however well played. Connolly, however, produced a tone neither beautiful nor hysterical, suggesting a mother drained by experience; her reading truly hit the spot. Throughout, diction was perfect, though intonation wavered a little at the end of ‘Wenn dein Mütterlein’. Jurowski soon calmed down. (Would that he had during the Mendelssohn and Brahms works.) Especially noteworthy in the second song was his bringing out the melodic and harmonic echoes of Tristan und Isolde. ‘Oft denk’ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen’ was heart-rending, Connolly conveying a true sense of someone trying to persuade herself of something she knew could not be true. The final song, ‘In diesem Wetter,’ was again somewhat micromanaged, but that was perhaps less inappropriate here, for Jurowksi clearly relished Mahler’s modernist sonorities, sounding not so far from Lachenmann, let alone Schoenberg. Connolly was harrowing without hectoring. The final stanza’s frozen animation emerged properly as a negative Mahlerian vista: Adorno would surely have approved. And the orchestral coda somehow managed, eyes open, to say ‘yes’, to refuse to bow to self-pity. Mahler is not lachrymose, even if Leonard Bernstein was.
Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ Symphony seemed constricted by so-called ‘period’ tendencies on Jurowski’s part. The first movement’s introduction was marked by a striking lack of string vibrato, making the LPO sound more akin to what passes today for a Handel ensemble. Wind instruments were unusually and downright oddly prominent. The first sounding of the ‘Dresden Amen’ sounded a greater affinity the symphonic mainstream, though, Jurowski seeming a little unsure still which way to turn; however, its subsequent manifestations once again minimised vibrato. The exposition and the rest of the movement brought short-breathed phrasing: all too four-square. Mendelssohn’s music was also taken very fast indeed – and not only fast but relentlessly hard-driven. It was all, as is the fashion, resolutely un-Wagnerian. Yet, as is the fashion again, it seemed only to be un- or non-something; what was to be heard in positive terms? (I was put in mind of Schoenberg on Stravinsky’s Œdipus Rex.) One could only long for Abbado, let alone Karajan.
The second movement was perky but again four-square. ‘Let the music breathe!’ I wanted to shout. There was some beautiful woodwind playing from the LPO, evocative of Classical Harmoniemusik; the strings’ pizzicato likewise impressed. Yet, even though the general tone was less astringent than much of the opening movement, everything sounded very scaled-down – which brings me to the odd forces employed: ten first violins, moving down to five cellos, but six double basses! The third movement responded best to Jurowski’s treatment, sounding urgent and never overblown, yet with time to relax on occasion. There was an apt sense of orchestral recitative, not only in the falling quasi-vocal interval at the end of so many phrases, but also in the sense of an ongoing narration. The finale started promisingly, sonority as well as melodic material harking back to Bach, but then Jurowski’s extremely fast, unbending tempo rendered much of the music merely trivial, however clear – almost a miracle at this speed – the counterpoint. Incredibly, he made an accelerando prior to the coda.
The second half was given over to Brahms’s Third Symphony, whose performance in many ways mirrored that of the Mendelssohn. Orchestral sonority was warmer but still constricted. Short-breathed phrasing was very much to the fore in the first movement, whose progress was constantly interrupted, as if by what some euphemistically call ‘traffic calmers’. Furtwängler was as distant as I could imagine, though doubtless worse horrors have been perpetrated by the provisional wing of the ‘authenticke’ brigade. At its best, one could characterise the performance as serenade-like. Tempo alterations became increasingly extreme, yet rarely convinced, rendering the music hectic or slamming on the brakes. There was, then, little sense of overall line. One could argue about the swift opening tempo of the second movement, yet whatever one’s thoughts on that, the music sounded too ‘moulded’, rather like Simon Rattle’s Brahms, albeit with greater extremity in terms of grinding to a halt. There were also strange interludes, almost Tchaikovsky-like in sonority, which seemed to have entered from another performance altogether. Superlative woodwind playing was, however, to be heard once again.
As in the Mendelssohn symphony, the third movement emerged relatively unscathed, intermezzo-like and with telling pointing of Brahms’s cross-rhythms. (Sadly, audience coughing, never reticent, reached its peak here.) The opening of the finale sounded wonderfully mysterious; which way might it go? Could there, at last, be something akin to the flow of a great river, as Giulini once described Furtwängler’s way with this movement? Alas not. Jurowksi’s line soon hardened, becoming rhythmically hidebound. Once again, one could hear as well as see every single beat – and many a sub-division too. The closing bars – Brahms’s celebrated ‘quiet’ ending – were beautifully variegated, but it was far too late by this stage. This music is far more difficult than many suspect.