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Richard WAGNER (1813-83)
Parsifal: Prelude to Act I & Finale to Act III (1882) [17:54]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (1914-15) [19:53]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das klagende Lied (original version, 1880) [25:01]
David Christopher Ragusa (boy soprano)
Marisol Montalvo (soprano)
Hedwig Fassbender (mezzo)
Michael Hendrick (tenor)
Anthony Michaels-Moore (baritone)
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Vladimir Jurowski
Extras: Interview with Vladimir Jurowski (Disc 1) [50:00]
Video director: Rhodri Huw
Picture: 16:9/NTSC. Regions: All
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1/PCM stereo
Subtitles: English, German
rec. 19 September 2007, Royal Festival Hall, London, UK
MEDICI ARTS 3056808 [154:00 + 104:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Moscow-born conductor Vladimir Jurowski launched his international career with a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night at the Wexford Festival in 1995. Thirteen years later he is principal conductor of the London Philharmonic and music director at Glyndebourne Opera, two high-profile posts that will surely enhance his reputation even further. And if this DVD is anything to go by behind those dark, somewhat ascetic, good looks and smart Nehru suit lurks a very promising musician indeed.
 
Disc 1 includes a 50-minute interview with the conductor, Disc 2 a special ‘conductor cam’ version of the concert. The latter, a picture-in-picture displayed at the bottom of your screen, allows you to watch the conductor as if you were in the orchestra. I’m normally a little sceptical about these ‘extras’ but I was actually rather fascinated by his conducting style. I imagine conducting students might find this particularly interesting but the novelty does wear off after a while.
 
It seems more concert DVDs are offering ‘add-ons’, some of which are more successful than others. Semyon Bychkov’s Vision Mahler (see review) has an abstract visual ‘interpretation’ of Mahler’s Second Symphony and Kent Nagano’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (see review) has unusual bird’s-eye and macro camerawork. The visuals are quite compelling in the Mahler but I wouldn’t want to watch them again; in the Strauss the camera angles seem a little gimmicky at first but it’s such a riveting performance that any misgivings are soon forgotten.
 
This Jurowski concert was recorded live in the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall last September. One of my very favourite places on earth this post-war concrete-and-glass monstrosity has a quirky character that’s endeared it to generations of concertgoers. I’m not sure the revamp has improved the space, and listening to a Philharmonia concert last December I felt the promised acoustic enhancements hadn’t been delivered either.
 
My doubts about the acoustics were quickly dispelled by a luminously beautiful rendition of the prelude to Act I and Act III finale of Parsifal. I was most impressed with Jurowski’s finely calibrated performance, the LPO responding magnificently to his every demand. There may be a few minor fluffs – it’s a live performance, after all – but the music has an inner glow that is both thrilling and deeply moving. On ‘conductor cam’ I found myself mesmerised by the conductor’s long, spatulate fingers as they shape the music. He certainly has a powerful podium presence, refreshingly free of distracting antics or mannerisms.
 
By all accounts Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, written for Schoenberg’s 40th birthday on 13 September 1914, had a difficult gestation. The composer was still very much in awe of his teacher, so perhaps it’s not surprising that only the first and third movements were ready in time. The second, Reigen, followed in 1915. One would never guess at all this indecisiveness and soul searching, such is the remarkable clarity and assurance of this seminal score.
 
Präludium, marked ‘Langsam’, is economically scored, spare yet not quite free of its Romantic roots. The murmur of percussion at the start may signal a different sound world but Jurowski’s warmly expansive reading emphasises the music’s links to the past; just listen to those Mahlerian Ländler in the second movement, for instance. The LPO brass are grotesque here, but discreetly so.
 
Given Jurowski’s treatment of the score so far I was curious to hear what he’d make of the gaunt but massive Märsch. I needn’t have worried because he brings out all the weight and thrust of this music, the echoes of Mahler’s doom-laden Sixth Symphony all too audible. The audience respond with enthusiasm to this stirring performance, and rightly so, but I imagine Mahler is the big draw here.
 
The cantata Das klagende Lied (The Song of Lament) was begun in 1878, completed in 1880 and revised in 1898. In a letter to the Viennese critic Max Marschalk, Mahler wrote: ‘The first of my works in which I found myself as “Mahler” is a fairy tale for orchestra, chorus and soloists, Das klagende Lied. This work I designated as my op. 1.’
 
This early piece, steeped in the dark, supernatural world of the brothers Grimm and Weber’s pivotal opera Der Freischütz, is also the seedbed for many of Mahler’s later works. The first version, submitted for the Beethoven Prize in 1881, is not as sleek or accomplished as the later one but it does portray the composer at his most rustic. It also shows him adapting folk tales, in this case The Singing Bone.
 
The long instrumental prelude to Waldmärchen (Forest Legends) brims with vitality, the folk-like tunes played with great lilt and affection by the LPO. This is as disarming as anything Mahler ever wrote and hearing it for the first time in years reminded me of its manifold charms. That said it’s not flawless and the work does have its longueurs.  But as Jurowski points out, the composer is ‘more cutting edge, more avant-garde’ in his unrevised scores, a view justified by the daring harmonies and naturalistic effects of Das klagende Lied.
 
The LPO play with great concentration and produce some ravishing sounds, but the soloists are a tad disappointing. Hendrick and Michaels-Moore don’t seem terribly engaged, but then the recording does set them rather far back. Of the female soloists Montalvo sounds a little pinched at times, Fassbender generally steadier and more ingratiating. The chorus also seem a bit distant, which made me long for a crisper, more incisive sound.
 
Despite these shortcomings the instrumental prelude to Der Spielmann (The Minstrel) is delightfully done, with some lovely string playing; even the soloists seem to have settled down somewhat. Only the boy soprano David Christopher Ragusa looks and sounds a little nervous. Jurowski finds the elusive Mahlerian pulse in this movement, the LPO alert to the rhythms and embryonic musical ideas that emerge, fully formed, in the symphonies.
 
The rumbustious start to the Hochzeitsstück (Wedding Piece) is crowned by thrilling cymbals and underpinned by thundering timps, yet it still retains a wonderful sense of transparency and focus. In full cry the chorus sound splendid too,  Fassbender’s ‘Why is the king so pale and silent’ sung with great feeling; the echt-Mahlerian horns that follow are glorious, the trombones dark and throaty. At this stage of the evening there is an air of concentration in the hall, a real sense of live music-making at its best. Ragusa still struggles with his high notes, but really this isn’t enough to blight an otherwise remarkably intense performance. The applause and cheers, although not ecstatic, are certainly appreciative and must augur well for Jurowski’s future with the LPO.
 
Inevitably this blossoming relationship between orchestra and conductor is touched upon in the accompanying interview with Medici Arts president Stephen Wright. Jurowski puts it all down to the ‘chemistry’ he felt when he stood in for Yuri Temirkanov in 2001. He feels the orchestra has many fine qualities, among them the ability to ‘abandon themselves to the music’. This may seem a strange comment, given the LPO’s warm, cultured sound, but anyone who has heard this band over the years will know they do take risks – for the right conductor. Just think back to Klaus Tennstedt’s all-too-brief tenure with the LPO and the memorable Mahler coverts they did together. Clearly Jurowski wants a similar relationship with the orchestra and it will be interesting to see whether this ‘chemistry’ continues to work in the hall and the studio.
 
Although Jurowski seems reasonably relaxed and articulate Wright’s questions and interviewing style is too formal for comfort, even a little wooden. Nevertheless Jurowski doesn’t duck the difficult questions, chiding the major recording companies for only concentrating on repertoire that sells. Given that he is committed to new and unfamiliar works it will be interesting to see how he squares that particular circle.
 
Technically, the picture quality of this DVD is excellent but Rhodri Huw’s video direction is a little pedestrian, with close-ups of instruments we can’t actually hear at that point. To be fair it’s a common problem with filmed concerts and a mildly irritating one but it’s not enough to spoil an otherwise satisfying concert. Sound quality is also fine, although I had difficulty selecting the PCM stereo option from the main menu. That may account for the soft-grained, somewhat veiled sound I remarked on earlier. I really do prefer uncompressed PCM stereo, as it’s usually much crisper and better focused.
 
Don’t expect a lavish booklet or song texts because all you get is a trilingual pamphlet that contains little or no useful information. And then there’s the double gatefold box, which is flimsy and will soon show signs of wear and tear. Really, I would prefer more substantial literature and sturdier packaging to ephemeral ‘extras’. Given that this set retails for around £20 it isn’t particularly good value.
 
Caveats aside, this is a concert – and conductor – that’s well worth watching.
 
Dan Morgan
 

 


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