I was struck recently by the title of a forthcoming book by Thomas Larson, The Saddest Music Ever Written: the Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”. Reading about the book on the author’s website, I learned that the BBC Today programme initiated a poll in 2004 to try to find the saddest music of all, and that the winner - if one can use such a term - with more than fifty per cent of the votes, was Barber’s Adagio. I think the Radio 4 listeners’ view was misguided: this concert, given in Paris’s Cité de la Musique in January 2009, opens with the saddest music I know, Richard Strauss’s post-war lament for German culture and for the Munich Opera House in particular, Metamorphosen. This work came in only in fifth place - behind such pieces as Mahler’s Adagietto - with only five per cent of Radio 4 listeners in agreement. A cruel injustice. We wus robbed.
Metamorphosen is one of the supreme masterpieces of music, and this performance is fully worthy of it. Watching Jurowski’s curiously stiff-wristed baton technique, and bearing in mind how much of the time he spends looking down at the score, one marvels again at the almost telepathic capacity a fine conductor has of communicating his intentions to the orchestra. Everything is clear, the gestures precise and far from histrionic. He paces the work perfectly, not too slow - though I can take this work very slow indeed if need be - and the closing quotation from Beethoven’s Eroica is beautifully placed. Textures in the often highly complex counterpoint are transparent throughout, and the preparation and execution of the more lively central section avoids any suggestion of panic or chaos. The whole performance is characterised by immense sadness tempered with stoicism and the implacable solidity of the human spirit. No praise is too high for the players, here and throughout the concert. One is lost in admiration for these superb musicians, some impassive before the camera, others less so, yet all getting on with their work with professionalism and efficiency despite being clearly moved themselves.
The second work in the programme brings a change of mood. Ravel’s concerto, and more particularly the whip snap with which it opens, was the work that turned this listener on to twentieth-century music a (short) lifetime ago. Its attraction has never dimmed, and I hope it never will for Hélène Grimaud. She must have played it hundreds of times, but she was clearly very much engaged with it on this occasion. She is quite free and rhapsodic in the slower passages of the first movement, with a fair amount of expressive rhythmic freedom which might become tiresome for some listeners when the apparent spontaneity wears off. That said, she is masterful at creating and maintaining the classical atmosphere necessary in this work, so difficult when even jazz is brought in to the game. The slow movement is beautifully played. The tendency of some pianists, in the interests of expression, not to synchronise the hands, is here carried to quite an extreme, and there is an instant during her accompaniment to the long cor anglais solo where she seems to want the wind soloist to move on rather. The wind players, by the way, acquit themselves as wonderfully well as do their bowing colleagues, particularly in this slow movement where many of the principals have at least a moment of glory. The finale rarely fails and, at a cracking pace, provokes the usual audience reaction here. Jurowski proves an outstanding accompanist, and whilst still restrained both in gesture and facial expression, to the extent that a reassuring nod seems a major event, every gesture counts. It’s instructive to identify the moments when he turns for visual contact with the soloist, as well as those, more frequent, when Grimaud looks up towards him. Hers is an enigmatic stage presence, rather sombre, rather inscrutable, with very little in the way of typical pianistic histrionics and seemingly uncertain in the moments after the final chord. She has no need to worry, though: the audience clearly enjoyed the performance, and the orchestra, too, applaud warmly.
The concert closes with the music Strauss composed for Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Jurowski conducts this work from a tiny score, and seems to want more eye contact with his players than before. He is clearly enjoying himself, but his conducting style remains economical and deeply serious. There is an almost dance-like elegance about many of his gestures, even when he lowers his arms after the final note of a piece. The performance is as fine as that of the two previous works, and is greeted with a slow handclap, a sign of appreciation in France.
The concert has been filmed with great musical understanding. Close-ups are invariably instructive, and only rarely is the viewer frustrated by hearing something that cannot be seen. The sound quality is excellent, though the piano seems a little forward in the overall balance, and seeing an orchestral soloist has one suspecting that he or she has been artificially brought forward too. The titles of the individual pieces of the final work appear on the screen. There are no extras, but you can watch a few trailers of other films, some of them quite enticing.