Before heading off to Spain and Germany, with not much time between returning and Christmas Day, the London Philharmonic Orchestra offered a Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner evening as its final Royal Festival Hall concert this year.
Vladimir Jurowski (taking the Spanish gigs, with Christoph Eschenbach in attendance for the rest of the tour) opened with Brahms’s wonderful Tragic Overture, a well-paced, rather proud performance, finding the LPO in equally proud form, whether in discriminating balances between horns and trombones, expressive woodwinds and affluent-sounding strings. Subtle dynamics and an affecting inwardness also informed this account; maybe some private reflections were indulged, but there was no doubting Jurowski’s consideration and the LPO’s honed response.
In 1857 on-the-run Richard Wagner had an affair with Mathilde Wesendonck (the wife of the silk merchant who had given the composer sanctuary). He was also aflame with the fable of Tristan and Isolde. His settings of five of Mathilde’s poems include two ‘studies’ for what would become his celebrated and seminal music-drama. Originally for voice and piano, the Austrian conductor Felix Mottl (1856-1911) orchestrated four of the five numbers, Wagner himself the other; all perfectly serviceable. In 1976 Hans Werner Henze (who died recently) also scored the songs using a small but colourful orchestra: 20 strings (often used solo), harp, a pair of horns, and one each of alto flute, flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon. His arrangement is exquisite and spectral, preserving the intimacy of the originals while opening up the songs’ potential beyond Mottl’s well-meaning conservativeness.
Anna Larsson (who performed this cycle with the LPO in January 2006, also using Henze’s version, with Mark Elder conducting) was less than pitch-perfect to begin with and a little reticent, but she settled to give an intense and insightful rendition, not afraid to be fully operatic when the Tristan aspects are at their most pronounced. In ‘Im Treibhaus’ (In the Greenhouse), which became the Prelude to Act Three of the opera, the music was rapt, pensive and fragile; and in the final setting, ‘Träume’ (Dreams), which Wagner orchestrated, the performers created a very special world-apart, Henze looking beyond Wagner’s inspiration to find parallels with Mahler’s ‘Abschied’ (Das Lied von der Erde). And ‘special’ sums up this whole performance, singer and musicians working wonders on behalf of Henze’s Wagnerian reimagining.
A year or so ago Vladimir Jurowski conducted the LPO in Bruckner’s First Symphony, a leap of faith for the cautious composer who was part-inspired to write it by seeing, yes, Tristan und Isolde. Then Jurowski used William Carragan’s edition of the original 1866 Linz version. Returning to the work Jurowski here favoured the 1877 revision (presumably as edited by Leopold Nowak), Bruckner attending to some minor modifications at the time of the symphony’s first publication. Later in life he made another revision to create the heavier and more-entangled ‘Vienna 1891’ score.
So far I have not been particularly taken with Jurowski’s Beethoven and – I may be alone in this – Mahler. But he has a convincing communication with Bruckner’s music, relishing the composer’s youthful quirkiness – the pauses, diversions and extensions – as found in the C minor Symphony, although by 1877 Bruckner was in his early fifties and a couple more symphonies down the road, all destined to be revised and to have their own editorial problems!
Jurowski now retained eight double basses (two more than for Tragic Overture), which made a weighty difference that would have also benefited the Brahms; antiphonal violins would have been pertinent, save that Jurowski had the violas where the second violins would have been better sat. Otherwise he brought purpose to Bruckner’s first movement, his individual take on Classical lineage in full cry, although a little more flexibility on the conductor’s part would not have gone amiss. The Adagio is built on whiffs of themes forming into a noble, even redemptive utterance, from which Jurowski created a deep spiritual reverie. With an exhilarating scherzo and a related trio, and a finale that grew to a jubilant homecoming – in which, as throughout, Simon Carrington’s timpani-playing was firm and assertive and the LPO as a whole was blazing –, this was a notable reading that (re-)illuminated the work, Jurowski loyal to Bruckner’s characteristic strangeness and delays as well as being contrapuntally exhaustive.