London Philharmonic New Season – Mahler Resurrection Symphony/Kurtág Stele

Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)

Adriana Kucerova (soprano) & Christianne Stotijn (mezzo soprano)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 September, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vladimir Jurowski, dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna. Photograph: Sheila RockIn repeating Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony from the evening before, the London Philharmonic and Vladimir Jurowski added Stele (the Greek for tombstone) by György Kurtág (born 1926), completed in 1994 for the Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado. Over its (here) 11-minute course, Kurtág’s orchestral extravagance is fastidiously focussed, the writing scrupulously economical, the ear constantly beguiled by just about every instrument you can think of (from alto flute to Wagner tubas); but such punctiliousness is not at the expense of heart and soul, for Kurtág conjures a volatile response that expresses itself through all its sounds and inflections with intensity and (possibly) deliberate allusions to other composers’ music (the opening Beethovenian chord is certainly no accident) that freezes and explodes to compelling and disturbing effect.

The performance was excellent, carefully graded and also ‘inside’ the music; but such identity was much less apparent on Jurowski’s part in the Mahler, the performance of which – once numerous musicians had vacated to leave a still-large orchestra but not one as extensive as Kurtág demands – failed to offer an experience that one felt part of, and which was staged-managed enough to be alienating. The long pause that the score calls for after the first movement (here taken fast and made superficial, crying out for the fevered emotionalism of a Bernstein or a Tennstedt, or the unobtrusive mastery of Michael Gielen) was filled by the Choir entering at a calculated slow pace, like mourners, all sitting down with overly-disciplined precision – quite comical in its own way – and followed by a half-hearted attempt at re-tuning by the Orchestra. The Choir should have been present from the off; and no visuals were needed to fill what should have been reflective silence. Such stage management detracted further from what was a micro-managed performance, nowhere more so than in the second movement, a minuet (allegedly), here taken at a snail’s pace, manicured and dandified, Jurowski’s exaggerated gestures becoming more and more irritating (music needs to be played and listened to, not signposted and watched).

Christianne Stotijn. ©Marco BorggreveThe third movement failed to catch fire, its outbursts reined-in, but at least Christianne Stotijn’s singing of ‘Urlicht’ – unforced and innately intense – made clear what had been missing thus far (although the leaving/returning bassoonist and contrabassoonist, these musicians ‘playing away’ for a couple of bars with the choir-adjacent brass ensemble – did they all need to stand? – was another visual distraction).

The finale moved in episodes, although the off-stage perspectives were very well judged; Adriana Kucerova made a radiant impression, the London Philharmonic Choir (singing from memory) was magnificent, and so too was the LPO (with some excellent solos – oboe, trombone, flute, piccolo), yet the twelve double basses (yes, twelve) would have been even weightier in sound had they pointed into the auditorium rather than at the conductor from their extreme-right position (although at least Jurowski had antiphonal violins). Sadly, the grand choral apotheosis (the organ hardly registering) failed to raise spirits, a loud add-on to not very much. The Kurtág was seriously great; the Mahler worryingly inconsequential.

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