Turnage Premiere

The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
When I Woke [World premiere]
Manfred – Symphony in B minor, Op. 58

Gerald Finley (baritone)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 December, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Mark-Anthony Turnage is the London Philharmonic’s Composer-in-Focus this season – the first piece to be heard being the Dylan Thomas song-cycle “When I Woke”, written in 2001 and only now receiving its first performance. In their forceful yet curiously distanced intensity, the three poems are typical of Thomas’s late work (one can understand why Stravinsky was so keen to collaborate on an opera just prior to the poet’s death), and Turnage has responded with settings understated yet plangent.

The diamond-like expansion and contraction of lines in “The Turn of Time” is treated as a vocal line of cumulative emotional power – unaccompanied until the fugitive postlude, whose crystalline clarity informs the setting of “When I Woke” that follows. This is the most diverse in terms of timbre and texture – its equivocal mood contrasting with the starkness of “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed” which forms the cycle’s expressive culmination, and whose nocturnal imagery and blues inflections are Turnage hallmarks never so subtly deployed as here.

Indeed, the scoring – for a small though diverse orchestra – has an enviable focus, enabling the vocal line to project Thomas’s complex word associations with absolute poise; something that Gerald Finley’s fine-spun delivery was ideally equipped to handle. One of Turnage’s most affecting recent works, it should not have been left unheard for so long and amply deserves further performances.

As to the remainder of the concert, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky seemed unlikely bedfellows – but their equally direct (if temperamentally very different) emotional fervency made a not inappropriate contrast, and with Vladimir Jurowski at the helm, interpretative conviction was sure to be forthcoming. Not entirely, perhaps, in The Isle of the Dead: the opening section lacked a degree of inexorability to draw one wholly into its orbit, with the baleful strivings touched off by the “Dies Irae” calculated almostto a fault. Formally, however, the performance was unexceptionally fine – and a similar conviction was evident after the interval.

London has heard several fine accounts of Manfred recently – Ashkenazy’s vivid scene-painting and Oramo’s Sibelian concreteness immediately come to mind. Without evincing an overly personal perspective, Jurowski played to the work’s symphonic strengths – his approach at its best in the quicksilver scherzo and dreamy pastorale that are the second and third movements. The sombre opening movement felt too sectional for its character depictions to cohere fully, while the often ramshackle sequence of events comprising the finale need to be guided more imaginatively if the final apotheosis (organ rather than the harmonium that Tchaikovsky seems to have required) is to sound transfigured rather than merely an afterthought. Yet this was a reading that saw the work whole – as well as explaining why, for all its symphonic aspirations, Tchaikovsky avoided placing it within his numbered canon.

An excellent overall response from the LPO ensured that, if not a memorable performance, this was never less than a sympathetic and absorbing one. The LPO’s stock continues to rise – something for which Jurowski (Principal Guest Conductor) deserves no mean credit.

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