Sunday, 14 December 2008

LPO/Jurowksi - Mahler and Wagner (Tristan und Isolde, Act II), 13 December 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Mahler – Adagio from Symphony no.10 in F-sharp major
Wagner – Tristan und Isolde: Act Two

Isolde – Anja Kampe
Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
Brangäne – Sarah Connolly
King Marke – László Polgár
Melot/Kurwenal – Stephen Gadd

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

I held high expectations for this concert. Perhaps they were too high, for they were only intermittently fulfilled. That said, the Mahler Adagio received a very good performance. There is a place to hear it by itself, every now and again, even if I think that happens far too often. At any rate, this was not an inappropriate occasion, especially given Vladimir Jurowski’s efforts to underline the kinship with Tristan und Isolde. (Valery Gergiev’s placing it before Mahler’s Ninth made far less sense, even if we leave on one side the unsatisfactory nature of the performances themselves.) Though a little concerned about the fastish opening tempo, I soon became accustomed to it and, in any case, Jurowski’s reading proved anything but rigid. Much nonsense is written about division of violins to the right and left of the conductor. It is a practice of which I approve, yet it is not mandatory, as one would think from the writing of some zealots, for whom commentary appears to be a matter of a performance conforming to their own derivative checklists. What matters is what advantage is taken of such antiphonal placing – or, indeed, on certain occasions, what advantage is taken of alternatives. Here, Jurowski ensured that the adopted seating contributed to that contrapuntal intensity that was in any case a hallmark of the performance. The texture was appropriately string-saturated, though certainly not to the exclusion of other parts, such as the meltingly Romantic horns. Violin vibrato was marvellously expressive: thank goodness no one had listened to the bizarre claims of Roger Norrington. And the violas showed that their part was every bit as important, providing us with reminiscences of and connections with Parsifal and indeed Tristan. There was always an apt lilt to the music’s progress and we heard an equally apt aspirant limping to the ’cellos’ pizzicato. Despite the odd imperfection in the visionary section leading up to the great discord, there was – unlike, say in Gergiev’s reading – a real sense that the music and its progress meant something, whether or no that could be put into words. If a more Romantic, less expressionistic, account than we often hear, there is nothing wrong with that, especially when one is about to hear part of Tristan. This is music in a rare tonality, that of F-sharp major, not quite the air of another planet. And the ending was beautifully rapt; here, Jurowski knew to take his time and the LPO strings knew how to shine.

The second act of Tristan opened like a continuation; indeed, if anything, it sounded a little more expressionistic, the Prelude exhibiting a febrile, expectant intensity. Indeed, throughout the act, there would be a great intensity to the orchestral playing, especially to the inner parts already foretold in Mahler’s viola writing. The dialogue between the off-stage horns – off-stage to left and right – was nicely handled. On stage, the horns sounded as close as I can recall hearing to one of Wagner’s favourite indications: sehr weich. I found the lower strings less impressive in general; they did not always sound so focussed as the violins and violas, and there was an occasional thinness to their sound. Jurowski generally handled the vast structure surely, although a few gear-changes would have benefited from greater instruction in Wagner’s fabled ‘art of transition’. He ensured nevertheless that the love duet seemed, if anything, shorter than one might have expected. And the terrible moment of coitus interruptus sounded as an interesting counterpart to the cataclysmic discord of the Mahler, not so glaring but perhaps all the more terrifying: certainly more terrifying than any I have heard for a while. Jurowski seemed to be itching to conduct the score in the theatre, which he will do at Glyndebourne next summer. A concert performance seemed a bit too much of a compromise, a ‘trial run’, an impression underlined by the inconsistent use of scores by the soloists: the women used them but the men did not.

And it was with the soloists that the real drawbacks of this performance lay. Sarah Connolly was probably the best of the bunch. As Brangäne, she displayed – the vocal score notwithstanding – an attentive thoughtful response to the music and to the words. One could readily dispense with the titles, so clear was her diction. László Polgár was suffering from a cold and sadly, it showed. To begin with, he sounded – quite promisingly – as if he had stepped straight out of Bluebeard’s Castle, but the condition of his voice soon deteriorated. The sympathy one felt was not inappropriate in terms of Marke’s character, but even so, the dryness of tone and increasingly wayward tuning were something of a trial. I was a little surprised at the intonation difficulties Robert Dean Smith has as Tristan, especially during his response to the king’s monologue. Yet on the whole, his was a reasonably sound, if hardly exciting performance. It did not help that he sounded rather ‘old’ throughout. Intonation was also a problem with Anja Kampe’s Isolde. I also felt that her voice was simply not right for the part; it sounded far too mezzo-like in quality. She acted with her facial expressions during Marke’s monologue; perhaps she too needs the theatre for her interpretation really to live. That said, the theatre can be no cure for what were on occasion alarming deficiencies in tuning. I can understand why Stephen Gadd was asked to be Melot and Kurwenal; it was confusing nevertheless.

This act of Tristan should clearly be considered work in progress for Jurowski. I certainly never had the feeling – as I always have, say, with Antonio Pappano’s Wagner – that the music would remain beyond him; far from it. One has to start somewhere and there was a great deal to commend his handling of the orchestra. Furtwänglerian Fernhören may develop with experience. Yet I hope that Jurowski and the LPO will be blessed with better soloists at Glyndebourne, for the Prelude and the shattering orchestral postlude were the best parts of this performance.