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Ligeti, Bartók, and Mahler: Barnabás Kelemen (violin), Jacob Thorn (treble), Leopold Benedict (treble), Melanie Diener (soprano), Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano), Michael König (tenor), Christopher Purves (baritone), London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 29.1.2011 (MB)


Ligeti – Lontano

Bartók – Violin Concerto no.1

Mahler – Das klagende Lied (original version)


Quite a programme: as Vladimir Jurowski had commented three nights earlier, these two London Philharmonic concerts were to be taken as a pair, circling around Mahler, and in particular the original version of Das klagende Lied, though a Hungarian connection was perhaps just as strong. A performance of Das klagende Lied, especially in its original version, is of course an event in itself – unlike the manifold unnecessary Mahler performances we are hearing or avoiding over the 2010-11 double-anniversary year.

There was, however, also a first half of generous duration to be heard. Ligeti’s Lontano is a masterpiece; so it sounded here, despite an almost inevitable bronchial onslaught. (Cannot these people simply stay at home if they are that ill?) It would be vain to pretend that such thoughtlessness did not detract from the shifting sounds of Ligeti’s large orchestra. Nevertheless, the almost countless statements of the Lux æterna theme, taken at varying speeds, coming together to form his typical, yet ever-different cloud- textures, were clearly manifested both individually and collectively – thanks in no small part to very fine playing from the LPO. Colours, temperatures, intensities: call them what you will, they were all to be heard here, in perpetual evolution. The climax before the end was well shaped by Jurowski, likewise the final retreat into another distance, or perhaps the same one. An encore, without a good – or rather bad – portion of the audience present, would have been most welcome.


Anyone interested in Bartók’s music – and how could anyone not be? – will find much of interest in his posthumously published First Violin Concerto, though it remains somewhat less than a masterpiece. (Comparisons may be odious, but consider the Second: one of the great concertos of the twentieth century, or indeed of any other.) It nevertheless received fine advocacy from Barnabás Kelemen, Jurowski, and the LPO. In the first movement, Kelemen proved an ardent, impassioned soloist, whilst Jurowski once again proved expert in shaping the progress to the climax. I found Kelemen’s vibrato a little heavy, but that is really a matter of taste and I can understand why it might be thought appropriate to such ‘Hungarian’ music. If the final solo phrase proved a little fallible, that largely reflects upon the high quality of performance heard elsewhere. Technique and unabashed virtuosity were much in evidence in the second movement. Yet the orchestral part was every bit as impressive, a note of Debussy-like fantasy, harps and all, being struck from the very outset. We did not seem so very far from the realm of The Wooden Prince; at times, we verged close, and rightly so, to Strauss. If the musicians could not entirely conceal the somewhat rhapsodic structure, I doubt that anyone could. Kelemen treated the audience to two encores: a scintillating account of the Presto from the Bartók solo sonata, which made one keen to hear him in the complete work, and a fine Sarabande from Bach’s Partita in D minor. The latter evinced a cleaner sound, in no way ‘authenticke’ but alert to the music’s contrapuntal and harmonic requirements.


Jurowski amply justified performance of the original version of Das klagende Lied. There is no need to be fundamentalist about such matters; there are gains as well as losses to be heard in Mahler’s revision born of experience. (Why one might prefer not to hear Waldmärchen, though, I find difficult to understand, even if one were to adopt a hybrid approach.) However, had I to choose, I should hear the original more often than not; its demands may be extravagant, but not for the sake of extravagance, rather at the service of the young Mahler’s extraordinary imagination. The opening horns enchanted: there is no sound that better encapsulates German Romanticism, both bright-eyed and yet somehow already forlorn. Equally enchanting was the woodwind throng that joined them. A magical kingdom was awakening, quite in keeping with the text we were about to hear. Everything from Der Freischütz to Gurrelieder (still, of course, some way into the future), by way of pretty much all of Wagner’s music dramas, is there and was heard to be there. Yet, by the same token, almost every bar sounds a voice that is Mahler’s alone. We hear premonitions of the early symphonies as well as the Wunderhorn songs. What comes across most vividly of all is the vernal freshness, even when - perhaps particularly when - tragedy takes centre stage. The LPO, off-stage band and all, responded in fine spirit. If there were occasions when synchronisation was not absolute, there was nothing to perturb in Jurowski’s marshalling of his forces.


Had I a criticism of Jurowski’s direction, it would be that he tended a little too much towards the operatic. Yes, Götterdämmerung is there, as it is in Gurrelieder, but Mahler’s story-telling, here as elsewhere, is of a subtly different kind; it is not straightforwardly representative, let alone realist. The music may be more bound to the text than would be necessary in the light of his subsequent experience, but an overarching, quasi-symphonic form benefits from being heard too. I do not wish to exaggerate, for this was far from formless, and the competing demands may ultimately prove irreconcilable. However, I felt that, for instance, the slower passages in the Hochzeitstück dragged a little within the context of the whole, as if dictated by a desire to depict would-be stage action that is better left to the listener’s imagination. On the other hand, the way in which Jurowski drew out thematic links between the first and third movements and their implications, not least the varying treatment of that descending scale, was only to be applauded.


Vocally, the star turn was the excellent London Philharmonic Choir, attentive to the text and well-rounded of tone. A mighty noise could be made where necessary, but the softer, subtler woodland descriptions were just as impressive. The soloists seemed oddly selected. They were most likely not helped by being seated behind the orchestra; for some reason, Jurowski also followed this practice in his performance of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane. Yet that was clearly not the only factor, for the voices of solo choir members often resounded more satisfyingly than those of the named soloists. The men conveyed their words decently enough but often they sounded dry, likewise Melanie Diener. Christianne Stotijn showed, however, that Lieder-like intimacy was far from incompatible with greater projection. The two boys, Jacob Thorn and Leopold Benedict, were also to be commended, their high notes truly piercing in emotional terms: Cain and Abel indeed.


Whatever incidental flaws, then, there may have been to the performance as a whole - and it is well-nigh impossible to conceive of a flawless performance of this work - it proved that, from the outset, Mahler was possessed not only of imagination but of a rare power to engage the listener emotionally. His genius was never in doubt.


Mark Berry

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