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Not So Polish-ed

In Classical Music, Review on March 6, 2016 at 2:46 pm

Review – Tchaikovsky, Zemlinsky & Szymanowski (Royal Festival Hall, Saturday 5 March 2016)

Symphony No. 3 “Polish” (Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky)
Six Maeterlinck Lieder (Alexander von Zemlinsky)
Stabat Mater (Karol Szymanowski)

Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano)
Elzbieta Szmytka (Soprano)
Andrzej Dobber (Bass)

London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic

Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

A concert in part to celebrate the 1050th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland was somewhat of a schizophrenic affair.

There is a quasi-correct connection between Tchaikovsky’s mis-named “Polish” Symphony No. 3 and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater commissioned by the rather racy Princesse de Polignac. However I couldn’t find a direct connection with Zemlinsky except the fact that Louise Zemlinsky’s mother died in a concentration camp in Poland. But I think that is a coincidental connection rather than a deliberate one.

Apart from historical schizophrenia, it was also a schizophrenic event in terms of the overall musical performance. As I’ve commented previously, Jurowski can coax magnificent playing from his orchestra but he often shows little sympathy for singers that made for an almost missed opportunity with regards to Zemlinsky’s Maeterlinck Lieder.

We simply don’t hear Anne Sofie von Otter in London often enough and last time it was in the ill-thought out The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. She is an incredible and intelligent performer and she brought the whole of her musical experience and insight into the performance of these six songs. Poor Zemlinsky, he lost out to Mahler in more ways that one both as conductor, composer and lover but these songs are under-rated. Ms von Otter brought each song to life through a clear love and understanding of the texts. Never has Und ich sah den Tod, der ewartetihn auch (and I saw Death waiting for him as well) been so perfectly placed word for word and the opening of the fifth song, Und kerht er einst heim sounded both so wistful and yet full of forlorn hope. And again she drove the text forward to the final tragic words.

Yet while Ms von Otter shared a wealth of experience and a surge of emotion to each song with the audience, Jurowski’s support was almost perfunctory and at times, overwhelmed the singer. Zemlinsky’s orchestration creates a very particular sound world and we only caught occasional glimpses of it.

Anyone fortunate enough to see Król Roger at Covent Garden will recognize the heady, almost opiate-laden palette that Szymanowski uses and his Stabat Mater is not exception. What stood out most from this performance was the quality of the choral singing – impressive, clear and impassioned. The trio of soloists was a mixed bag. At first, I thought that Jurowski might have asked the singers to dispense with vibrato because of the almost Choirboy-ish timbre and delivery of soprano Elzbieta Szmytka. However this was dispelled by Ms von Otter own impassioned delivery of the Polish text. Personally and thinking back to Georgia Jarman, I would have preferred a soprano with more depth and richness for this vocal line. The third soloist. Andrzej Dobber had a resonant if slightly indistinct bass and seemed most subsumed by Jurowski’s conducting.

The concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony – erroneously labeled the “Polish” symphony. It always feels like the ‘middle child’ of the composer’s six symphonies (seven if you include Manfred). It follows the creative freshness of the firs two symphonies, and while it teases at the last three in the set, this five movement work always feels more academic experiment than symphony. Personally, anyway.

It was well-performed, with Jurowski revealing much of the inner detail, however it didn’t seem to hang together coherently. But ultimately this has more to do with the symphony itself that the excellent playing of the London Philharmonic and in particularly some of the individual players and in particular the first bassoonist.

I’m not sure that the evening warranted a standing ovation from some parts of the Festival Hall (I think there was some partisanship going on) and I continue to hope that Jurowski will find a more sympathetic approach when he next performs with any singers.

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