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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.

How Do You Save A Concert With Karita?

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on January 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Review: The Rest Is Noise Inaugural Concert (Royal Festival Hall, Saturday 19 January 2013)

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
Four Early Songs, Op. 33
Notturno, Op. 44 No. 1
Dance of the Seven Veils & Final Scene, Salome, Op. 54

Karita Matilla (Soprano)
Thomas Hampson (Baritone)

London Philharmonic
Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

An all-Strauss concert heralded the start of the Southbank’s The Rest Is Noise festival – literally chapter one in a one-year musical traversal of Alex Ross’ book of the same title.

It’s an ambitious and creative approach to the book. As well as concerts, talks and films are scheduled to bring 20th Century music to life for the audience.

So it’s a shame that the opening concert didn’t quite live up to the artistic and ambitious endeavor of the festival itself. Bar the most obvious programming of the evening Jurowski and the soloists didn’t manage to generate that frisson of excitement that underlined the reason why Ross embarks on his book with Richard Strauss.

The last time I heard Jurowski conduct Strauss was a mixed affair and the same was true of this opening concert. Also sprach Zarathustra – while smartly played by the London Philharmonic – was no nonsense – in fact almost perfunctory – in its delivery by the maestro. Played almost as an academic exercise, Jurowski gave no quarter or flex to allow the music to breathe. When speaking afterwards, Jurowski spoke of the piece’s nihilism. Clearly his idea of nihilism is to get to the final bar as quickly and unapologetically as possible with no pause for thought or reflection.

I just hope that by the time Jurowski gets to Die Frau ohne Schatten later this year that he has – for wont of a better phrase – relaxed into Richard Strauss a great deal more.

Sadly the four early songs that followed fared little better. Neither Verführung nor Gesang der Apollopriesterin were the best choices for Karita Matilla. Or vice versa. There is no denying that Matilla is still an incredible singer but she simply wasn’t able to negotiate the broad sweeping phrases as written by Strauss and in some cases not only quite literally ‘gulped’ them out but struggled at both ends of her register. There was little finesse and no colouring in her performance and as a consequence this inevitably meant that at times her diction was below par. I see that she is schedule to sing the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos. An unusual decision based on her performance of these two songs.

Thomas Hampson fared better. Marginally. A career of lieder singing was evident in his performance and focus on the words but he struggled not only against the orchestra at points (which male singer doesn’t in Strauss?) and again he wasn’t quite able to negotiate the range that Strauss had written in to the vocal line.

However again while Jurowski coaxed some resplendent playing from the orchestra I was not always convinced of his sympathy either for supporting either singer or the music itself. It was almost – despite his own comments to the audience about the influences of Wagner and the like – that these songs were a sideshow to what was to come.

The second half was immeasurably better but not always for reasons of musicianship.

I have not heard the Notturno performed in the UK before and not for some time generally. It is an interesting piece with Strauss being inspired by Richard Dehmel’s poem to create a new and beautifully evocative palette of colours for a chamber ensemble that he was not to do again. As well as echoes of Mahler in places it is definitely forward looking but whether it had an influence on later composers is debatable. Strauss’ own retreat from this sound world proves that he was himself experimenting. Here Jurowski seemed to relax into the music more. Perhaps it was the intimacy and focus of the piece that inspired him as he allowed the players greater freedom and weaved the textures produced together around Hampson who sang with great diligence and some theatricality. However this piece is cruel in its exposure of any singer and here Hampson didn’t quite manage the lower parts of the vocal line and could perhaps have been braver in his interpretation. Hopefully however we will see Notturno become a rare, if not absent, addition to the performance schedule here in the UK.

And so to the closing music of the concert.

Personally I think that Strauss’ Dance of the Seven Veils could almost conduct itself. Beautifully orchestrated and cunningly constructed it moves inexorably to its denouement and for the conductor the challenge is to marshal the orchestral forces to ensure it doesn’t burn out too quickly, tease out the orchestral colours and inject a sense of sexuality and swagger. Jurowski did the first, mostly did the second but the third was sadly lacking. Again there was a sense of the perfunctory to his leadership that while it meant the Dance was beautifully played it didn’t quite have the sensuousness that would lead one to want to give Salome someone’s head.

And Karita Matilla’s Salome? Was she – as Hampson said – one of the greatest Salome’s alive? Did she deserve the standing ovation?

Yes.

And no.

Clearly this was the moment in the concert that Ms Matilla was completely focused on and she gave a mesmerizing – at times electric – performance. I could have been mistaken but did the Southbank lighting technicians bathe her in a red light. Why? It was not needed. She completely immersed herself in the character and music of Salome and while the sounds that she produced were not always beautiful, they were completely in character. When needed she cut through the orchestral most brutally but could then reduce herself to an almost Sprechstimme-like whisper. She pulled out all the stops and had clearly decided that this was not a moment for vocal beauty but rather a moment to forge an interpretation based on raw – almost physical – emotion.

And it worked in the confines of the concert hall.

And it was clear that wherever she went Jurowski was duty-bound to follow. The roles were reversed and she was in control. For the first time he seemed to release himself from some kind of self-imposed straitjacket and pushed himself and the orchestral to their limits. He mined the rich textures and colours that Strauss had written but more than that he surrendered and gave space for the lyricism that this closing section is steeped in as a juxtaposition to the music of Salome’s own deranged mind.

Together Matilla and Jurowski sought out and found beauty in the brutality of Strauss’ music. For the first time that evening you could completely understand why Alex Ross chose Strauss as the first chapter in his book. It swept away all the disappointment of the rest of the concert.

Quite rightly the audience showed their appreciation. But it was for Matilla’s memorable not musical Salome.

The evening was quite literally saved by serving up a head on a plate.

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