London Philharmonic/Jurowski Martin Helmchen – Mendelssohn, Shostakovich & Mahler

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Overture, Op.21; Scherzo, Intermezzo, Nocturne & Wedding March, Op.61
Piano Concerto No.2 in F, Op.102
Symphony No.1

Martin Helmchen (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 April, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vladimir Jurowski. Photograph: Roman GontcharovThis generous concert ended with an epic account of Mahler 1, reaching an hour in length and notable for some expansive tempos, mostly convincing. Vladimir Jurowski, the London Philharmonic utterly hushed in response, ensured a new day to form in the most suspenseful way, off-stage (and perfectly distant) horns and trumpets adding perspective and narrative. This concert was being recorded for the LPO’s archives (and possible commercial issue), therefore the punctuating coughs (not forgetting the nose-blower that intruded the third and fourth movements!) were regrettable distractions and, although of little account on the night, some blemishes in the playing (and a ‘missed moment’ in the third movement) might count against a release.

Nevertheless, in terms of the concert itself, this was an engrossing account, Jurowski keen to stress the chamber-music writing, the symphony’s gentlest and most inward aspects, as well as its dramatic ones. Whether it quite added up is another matter – for Jurowski, having taken the ultimate coda in a grand manner (grandiose even), then went for a sudden acceleration for the closing bars that undid the previous (and maintained) huge scale and seemed gratuitous.

Yet the implosion and explosion of the first movement was securely charted (for all their divergence) and the scherzo stamped heavily (a ‘rougher’ string sound would have been welcome in context), even if Jurowski made a meal of the trio. Gratefully, it was an (excellent) double bass solo (rather than the whole section, the latest Mahlerian fad!) that launched the mock funeral march (suitably surreal, the dance-measures sleazy) and if the finale was a little too controlled (articulation first, theatre second) and elastic, this was an account both individual and exposing.

Martin Helmchen. Photograph: Marco BorggreveThroughout Jurowski made much of the exchanges between first and second violins, here sitting antiphonally (as these composers would have expected), a relish that also informed the Mendelssohn excerpts, which passed 30 minutes very pleasantly, once past an uncertain start to the Overture, and enjoying a deft, glowing and unanimous response from the orchestra, the strings wonderfully precise in the fastest passages. A shame that an ophicleide (a sort of bugle) couldn’t be found for the ‘Overture’ (the Philharmonia Orchestra rustled one up for Charles Mackerras a few months ago), a tuba (tenor?) being no substitute for this now-obsolete instrument, its contribution here being heavy and, at one point, rather below pitch, and tuttis were rather generalised. It was good though to hear the restless ‘Intermezzo’ (not usually part of the MND Suite) and Elspeth Dutch made a lovely and easeful contribution on the horn in ‘Nocturne’, itself played with flowing romantic ardour. The famous ‘Wedding March’ was new-minted – upbeat, up-tempo and with a swing, the trio breezed through.

Jurowski and the LPO provided a spot-on accompaniment for Martin Helmchen in Shostakovich’s light-hearted (but not entirely so) Second Piano Concerto. Launched by perky woodwinds (and throughout this performance the LPO’s winds were quite superb), Helmchen gave a delightfully unaffected, affectionate, and note-perfect, performance, the orchestra bringing out militaristic and even nightmarish aspects (the side drum ideally prominent). There was a real fizz to the outer movements (the finale seeming to counterpart that of Ravel’s G major Concerto), the slow movement (a cousin to Chopin) rapt, nocturnal and magical, enough to melt the hardest of hearts.

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