Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.1 [including Blumine]
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 4 December, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Eighteen months or so ago Vladimir Jurowski conducted the London Philharmonic in Mahler’s First Symphony. Nothing unusual about that: this work has been overplayed for many years and continues to be so. On that occasion Jurowski offered Mahler’s four-movement final revision, the epithet of “Titan” and its movement-descriptions discarded by the composer. That Jurowski was returning to Mahler 1 so soon was hardly news-worthy, but it seemed from early publicity he was doing so under the guise of “Original Version”. Now that would be something, save that come the time to open-up the evening’s programme-book, we find that self-same four-movement symphony simply with ‘Blumine’ added-in as the second movement, the place it occupied until Mahler removed it. Nothing novel about Jurowski’s reinstatement either: conductors have been doing so for a few decades (‘Blumine’ was re-discovered in 1967, Eugene Ormandy making a recording of it soon after). So Jurowski gave us the usual cut-and-paste job, ‘Blumine’ readmitted into a scheme that Mahler had come to refuse.
The pity is that it’s perfectly possible to perform the 1893 score of this symphony (referred to either as the Weimar or Hamburg version, the symphony being performed in both places), an edition that reflects Mahler’s then-acceptance of ‘Blumine’, the complete 1893 score having been recorded by Wyn Morris, Zsolt Hamar and Jan Willem de Vriend, for example, and some years ago Neville Marriner conducted it in the Royal Festival Hall. Not that the 1893 version counts as ‘original’ either; for that we need to go further back in time, to Budapest, and the five-movement ‘symphonic poem in two parts’, which has not survived in full. Given that the four movements from 1893 that made it through to the definitive publication are different (in paragraph and scoring) to that now-‘usual’ version, it is incorrect and misleading, as here, to present as “original” the final revision with ‘Blumine’ interpolated where it once was and, by then, disowned by its composer.
As it happens ‘Blumine’ was beautifully realised here, even though, and as always, it seemed divorced from its surrounds; its rapture breezed in, Paul Beniston’s trumpet serenading us, the harp’s mandolin-masquerade a delight, and oboe and slithery double basses were an unusual mix – visionary music, in fact, stretching as far along as to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Jurowski made a well-timed attacca into the (now) third-movement scherzo, deliberate enough in tempo but something earthier in timbre was needed, and the trio was a gilded lily (although a trio of flutes had a heyday). The ‘funeral march’ was suitably dead-treaded, but Jurowski has unfortunately joined those conductors accepting a full section of double basses (here ten in number) instead of a solo bass intoning ‘Frère Jacques’ – and in doing so losing all individuality. I’m told by a Mahler authority that this is “a mistake the Mahler Gesellschaft made in the last critical edition”, but numerous conductors seem willing to play it (yet eighteen months ago Jurowski had a solo instrument). Otherwise, sepulchral colours formed and receded with an artist’s eye, and if Jurowski played-down the Klezmer aspects, the lyrical music was tenderly played by the strings (as were the slower sections of the finale, albeit these were brought to a standstill).
Indeed, the outer movements didn’t hang together well, contrasts of tempo dividing the process rather than it being organic. Off-stage perspectives were well-handled in the symphony’s opening measures, Jurowski observed the first-movement exposition repeat (not an option in the 1893 score), and come the symphony’s ultimate coda, arriving a few minutes earlier than in the previous performance, which was epic and slow-burn, to close this current stop-start, non-gelling reading Jurowski accelerated into the final bars in crass and cavalier fashion to ruin any sense of genuine arrival. As a recording for its label, the LPO will have wished the indiscriminate coughers further.
Earlier, this overture-less concert had a ‘cold’ start with the piano concerto. Hélène Grimaud deliberated for quite a while before delivering the opening solo, which was deeply thoughtful and punctuated with meaningful intakes of breath and then expressively answered by the orchestra, the strings a little too lean-sounding (‘authentic’ tendencies sitting uneasily on ‘modern’ instruments), woodwinds prominent in the mix. Initial promise was not maintained, the rendition falling too easily into a groove, Jurowski’s disciplined and detailed accompaniment not always bespoke to the pianist’s conception. Although Grimaud found glitter and withdrawal in the solo part, her playing was short on poetry and colour, and not the last word on poise either, the first-movement cadenza (the more-usual of Beethoven’s two) an incendiary cutting-loose; a display of temperament out of kilter with this rarefied masterpiece. The slow movement found the strings very brusque (not unreasonably given the shorter bows of Beethoven’s day), yet there is a weightier statement to be made here. Grimaud’s pacifying riposte lacked innigkeit, even catching the strings’ volubility. The finale was too fast and unvaried. Somebody booed: an extreme reaction, but just a little understandable.