London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski – Tchaikovsky’s Polish Symphony, Zemlinsky’s Maeterlinck Songs with Anne Sofie von Otter, Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater

Symphony No.3 in D, Op.29 (Polish)
Sechs Gesänge nach Texten von Maurice Maeterlinck, Op.13*
Stabat Mater, Op.53**

Elzbieta Szmytka (soprano)**, Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)*/** & Andrzej Dobber**

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 5 March, 2016
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Vladimir JurowskiPhotograph: Matthias CreutzigerIt was a neat choice of music (on the eve of Mothering Sunday) to combine two passionately expressive works exploring texts on love, loss and longing and prefacing this with Tchaikovsky’s breezy Third Symphony – given the appellation ‘Polish’ (probably by August Manns, who conducted the British premiere) only because of its polonaise-style Finale.

Tchaikovsky wasn’t too sure about the work and declared in a letter to Rimsky-Korsakov, “it seems to me that the symphony doesn’t present any particularly successful ideas – but technically it’s a step forward.” Did Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra confirm this frank self-assessment, or generate a fresh, more positive interpretation of the work?

Anne Sofie von OtterPhotograph: Mats BaeckerThere’s no escaping Tchaikovsky’s capacity for repetition, and in the opening movement (grandeur and lyricism aside) no matter how hard the strings worked there was no obvious musical gain. By the time we reached the coda it was clear that Tchaikovsky is master of the longwinded. An elegant ‘Alla tedesca’ followed with the woodwinds making the best of their rather ordinary material. The solo horn was effortlessly smooth in the Andante elegiaco. Matters perked up in the incident-packed Scherzo mainly due to the splendid efforts of Katie Bedford on flute and the cellos. But, judging by his demeanour, the comic humour of these passages seemed to pass largely unnoticed by Jurowski. As Finales go this one smells of the classroom; its four-square shortcomings eventually relieved by Simon Carrington’s rousing timpani-playing in its closing bars.

After the interval there was plenty of inspiration in Zemlinsky’s Six Maeterlinck Songs with Anne Sofie von Otter adding mystery and sensuousness. True, much of the stimulation comes not from the melodic material or Mahlerian harmonic language but its opulent orchestration that includes harmonium and celesta. While occasionally Otter struggled to project these tales of love and loss (although her voice still retains much of its radiance) she was notably successful in the more delicately-scored settings.

In the fragile textures that begin Szymanowski’s Stabat mater it was fascinating to hear a similar soundworld to Zemlinsky’s. Like the latter’s Songs, personal circumstances were also behind much of the creative impulse for the Szymanowski. Mary’s suffering for her son at the foot of the cross would have resonated with Szymanowski whose sister lost a young daughter in a tragic accident. Elzbieta Szmytka was a suitably consoling soprano: her lack of expression (as if to convey numbed grief) combined intimacy and introspection. Otter provided warmth and nobility while an imposing Andrzej Dobber was an iron-clad baritone – well able to sustain the punishingly high range demanded in the second of two extended solos. The London Philharmonic Choir was by turns glowing (especially when a cappella) and ecstatic in climatic passages, the LPO unfailingly supportive. This was a dramatic account of an austerely beautiful work. Jurowski and his forces might, at times, however have conjured some Lenten mystery and I came away unmoved.

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