Parsifal – Prelude to Act One
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 21 January, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
For his latest appearance with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Vladimir Jurowski assembled a compact yet cohesive programme centred on early Mahler. Whether the Prelude to Wagner’s “Parsifal” was a pertinent choice (instead of, say, A Faust Overture) is arguable, but there was no denying the poise of Jurowski’s reading nor the conviction that the OAE brought to music whose conception of diverse orchestral timbre might be thought inimical to its thinking. A pity, though, that Jurowski still includes the final bars of Act One rather than allow it to conclude in expressive and tonal expectancy.
After this, Mahler’s Totenfeier sounded untamed and even primitive in context, but this tone-poem that became the first movement of his ’Resurrection’ Symphony is a piece Jurowski has now performed on several occasions, and of whose sheer audacity he has the measure as much as anyone. Admittedly the initial recitative gestures found cellos and double basses struggling to articulate at such a breakneck tempo, but thereafter Jurowski took a more flexible approach that enabled the emotional extremes of this music to find the right equilibrium. Some eloquent woodwind-playing during the Arcadian second subject was complemented by the incisiveness of brass as it cut through Mahler’s admittedly under-balanced string textures; Jurowski confirming the ‘additional’ passages prior to the development as not necessarily extraneous, then drawing the finest of lines between defeat and defiance in the coda.
After the interval, “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” found Mahler in more ruminative mood, yet there was no lack of rhetorical intensity during the melodramatic excesses of ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’. Sarah Connolly rose to the challenge impressively; elsewhere she was no less attuned to the wistful introspection of ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’, impulsiveness soon turning to regret of ‘Ging heut Morgen übers Feld’, or the exquisitely dovetailed elements of funeral march and recessional in ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’. The scaled-down orchestration did not lack for definition in the Royal Festival Hall acoustic and, while the succession of songs always seems too individuated to gel into a genuine cycle, Jurowski made the most of their subjective follow-through – those elements taken over into the First Symphony pointing the way forward as Mahler set his sights on altogether more elemental concerns.
It says much about the present-day orchestral repertoire that a majority of tonight’s audience was unlikely to have heard Liszt’s Les Préludes in a concert, whereas half-a-century ago it would have been the most familiar piece here. Hopefully this bicentenary of the composer’s birth will see the revival of such pieces – of which the present work is as representative as any of his varied if uneven sequence of symphonic poems. Without seeking to draw out any unnecessary profundity, Jurowski had the measure of the music’s energy and pathos from the outset – drawing together its succession of themes such that the work’s organic overall evolution was much more evident than its episodic contrasts. Thus the more inward passages were kept moving, while the final section (with its unfortunate wartime associations of shot-down Allied planes) made for an affirmative but never bombastic apotheosis. Hopefully Jurowski plans to include more of these pieces – or even the much- maligned Dante Symphony – in future concerts: his advocacy could be just what this music requires.