Der Freischütz – Overture
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Manfred – Symphony in B minor after Byron, Op.58
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 18 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The supernatural loomed large in this London Philharmonic Prom, vividly so in a full-on performance of the Overture to Der Freischütz that condensed all the salient points of the opera. It’s a piece that can sound like the prototype soundtrack for spooks and devilry, but with the amount of detail he drew from Weber’s early-Romantic score, Vladimir Jurowski gave it impressive symphonic breadth, with its strongly drawn melodies conjuring up the melodramatic mood. Some superb horn-playing ushered us into the Wolf’s Glen, despite the trombones’ semitonal warning growls, and I could have sworn that for a nanosecond it was uncertain whether the clinching big chord just before the return of the triumph-of-love music would be C major or minor. Either way, it was an indicator of the LPO’s lightly worn virtuosity.
The transparency of the string sound (with antiphonal violins and the double basses on the left of the platform) carried into the four Mahler songs, providing malleable support for a performance of this epigrammatic cycle of chamber-like refinement. Alice Coote was on her considerable top form as the lovelorn suitor. Her demonstrative, defiant stage presence was in marked contrast to the subtlety of her singing, her voice finding an edge and opacity that was in complete sympathy with the unselfconscious regret that trails through Mahler’s music – Coote has this extraordinary ability of suggesting mezzo warmth at the same time as withholding it. The effect, as it should be, was heartbreaking, defined by the effortful placing of notes and sighing appoggiaturas in ‘My love’s blue eyes’, the rare quality of her lower register and a finely applied vibrato. She precisely caught the mood of baffled innocence with an inwardness complemented by the numinous orchestral playing.
Jurowski and the LPO have done more than their fare share of outing Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony over recent years, confirming some Tchaikovsky lovers in their belief that Manfred is the best of him. In my humble opinion, it isn’t, except for the first movement, which drapes Byron’s self-referential hero in his billowing cloak of gothic angst and solitude. Leonard Bernstein – no slouch when it came to ego-driven self-identification – is supposed to have thought Manfred “trashy”, an opinion possibly justified by its programme and, in many performances, a diffuse focus that tries too hard to link it to Tchaikovsky the outsider, largely on the back of his homosexuality.
Jurowski takes an objective, rather cool approach that lets the music speak for itself, with one miscalculation: he takes the slow movement, an Andante con moto, at a pace nearer adagio, in an attempt to distribute its emotional baggage more liberally – and it doesn’t suit the predominantly picturesque music. Manfred turns out to be quite a tough nut to crack, a cross between the massively autobiographical inclinations of Berlioz in Symphonie fantastique and the overblown rhetoric of mighty nature in a work like Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, but refracted, twice, through Byron and his autobiographical hero. Its problems come to a head in the finale, an uneasy mix of ballet-style music and, notably in the fugue, sheer note-spinning; the apotheosis, though, with the organ bellowing forth, does achieve some kind of Lisztian lift-off.
Manfred, though, is one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest virtuoso scores, and the LPO was clearly revelling in it, with some brilliantly liberated woodwind-playing, a lithe string sound that fed us just enough opulence and a stunningly fine scherzo, all driven by Jurowski’s unflappable, spacious appraisal.