Rhapsody for contralto, male chorus and orchestra, Op.53
A Faust Symphony
Anna Larsson (contralto)
Peter Auty (tenor)
Gentlemen of the London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 1 May, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
This thoughtfully planned Goethe-related concert began with a revealing account of Wagner’s A Faust Overture, dark, pensive, fevered, such contrasts presented with conviction by the London Philharmonic and Vladimir Jurowski who gave the piece slow-burn turbulence, fastidious detailing, and introducing the Schumannesque refrain with optimism and brightness.
Good timing, weight of sound and touching eloquence informed the Wagner. The Liszt was less successful; but it’s a piece that is very difficult to bring off and needs more help and identification than Jurowski brought to it. The three characters that make up the movements are respectively studies of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles, their motifs metamorphosing and meshing; Liszt’s cleverness is there to be heard, his skill and imagination undeniable; yet the themes, sometimes banal, can become repetitive, the symphony stretched beyond itself, although the large (70-minute) scale seems necessary. It needs very special pleading. Jurowski and the LPO were good, sensitive, incisive – but not enough to persuade that that this work is only intermittently interesting. The portrait of ‘Gretchen’ was chaste and burgeoning and, at 21 minutes, among the most spacious of accounts of it – yet it could have had even more timelessness to it. ‘Mephistopheles’ is the weakest movement, trite, yet (as revised by Liszt) ends with the inspired blaze of ‘Chorus Mysticus’, here magnificent from the gentlemen of the chorus, the RFH organ ideally present and balanced and with Peter Auty heroic to Liszt’s challenges. The music representing ‘Faust’ himself emerged as too sectional, at times enervated – more emotional tension was needed to paper the cracks and sustain the whole.
What also contributed to the disappointment was the sound – when there is no audience in the choir area the acoustic of the RFH becomes edgy and lacks focus; with the gentlemen-chorus only returning for the last few minutes of the Liszt (could they not have been present throughout the performance? *), most of this account of A Faust Symphony was over-bright, and eight double basses were simply not enough – however, none of this would have made any difference to the noisy cymbal clashes that were intrusive rather than colourful. No doubt Jurowski will return to A Faust Symphony and hopefully with something more penetrating, enough to scorch directly into the centre of the music and find rather more than a well-executed (and well-manicured) surface.
Brahms’s “Alto Rhapsody” left the greatest impression – although the Wagner was something of a revelation – the men’s chorus wonderfully blended and unanimously dynamic in the consolatory final section, and if there was a bit of ensemble slippage with Anna Larsson at that point, she had earlier brought intensity to her declamation that was totally compelling; an internal drama that reached the farthest recesses of the hall, Jurowski finding a through-line across the whole that exemplified Brahms’s concision without compromising his largesse and humanity.
- Southbank Centre
- * Neville Creed, Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Choir, advises that “the reason for their entry just before they sing is because Liszt wrote a note in the full score asking them to enter at that point.”