Eötvös, Liszt, Zemlinsky: Sue Thomas (flute), Nicholas Carpenter (clarinet), Alexander Markovich (piano), Melanie Diener (soprano), Thomas Hampson (baritone), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Festival Hall, London 26.01.1
Peter Eötvös: Shadows (UK premiere of orchestral version)
Liszt: Piano Concerto No.2
Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony
How strange to spend an evening at the Festival Hall and not hear a Mahler symphony. He was there in spirit though, as the guiding voice behind Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony, a work so intensely influenced by Das Lied von der Erde that it has no problems standing in as Mahler's 11th when the man has run out of repertoire.
Programming Zemlinsky as ersatz Mahler suggests an innovative approach to programming Mahler-themed concerts. In fact, the whole programme was very imaginative, and all the works on it, even the Liszt, are rarities. The danger is that coherency is achieved by highlighting the common failures of the works. There are no masterpieces here, which is just as well because any of these pieces would be instantly forgotten if they were programmed with a symphony by Beethoven, or even Mahler.
Vladimir Jurowski tends to get a hard time in the press whenever he programmes any new music, especially if it is from Eastern Europe. He obviously is not letting that phase him, and the concert opened with the UK première of the orchestral version of Peter Eötvös' Shadows. It is a concertante work for flute and clarinet. The stage is divided into symmetrical halves. Each half consists of a string section at the back, the soloist and a row of wind players in front with their backs to the audience. In the middle sit a snare drummer, a celesta and a timpanist. This central continuo group and the soloists have mics, and their sounds are projected through speakers so that they are linked variously to the two groups.
Got all that? The fact that this piece was written by a conductor who specialises in opera is clear from the reliance on spacial effects and musical dramaturgy. The piece is in a series of short movements, only some of which actually use the stage layout for antiphonal effects. It is a fascinating piece, but it never quite achieves anything substantial, which is partly because the individual movements are too short to really make the most of their constituent ideas. There is also a generic problem here; like Ligeti's concertante works, it sets up a dynamic where you expect virtuosity from the soloist supported by ensemble playing from the orchestra. There is little of any of that, but the various alternatives that are proposed are not really explored in depth either.
By following the Eötvös, Liszt's 2nd Piano Concerto also seemed like a very experimental work. And indeed it is. It is another piece that strains against generic conventions. And like the Eötvös, it always seems to be striving for some innovative alternative, but never quite reaches the solution it is looking for. Alexander Markovich gave a surprisingly analytical performance, as if he wanted to present the score warts and all, without making any excuses for its various anomalies. That’s not to say that there was no emotion, in fact the precision of the reading only served to highlight both the drama and the lyricism. But in general the pedalling was restrained and rubato was only applied in moderation. There were a few slips here and there, usually in the fast runs, but on the whole this was a convincing and engaging reading. For an encore, Markovish treated us to slapstick variations on, if I'm not mistaken, the Skater's Waltz. Bizarre.
Treating Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony as makeshift Mahler doesn't really do the score justice. There are many aspects of the work that Mahler would never think of. Both composers were also conductors, but it is interesting how much more leeway Zemlinsky gives the orchestral players. Perhaps the issue here is that unlike Mahler, Zemlinsky rarely conducted orchestras of the calibre of the Vienna or New York Philharmonics. But the way that Zemlinsky paces his unusual orchestral effects has an important bearing on their success in performance. The way that he layers the orchestral counterpoint in his tuttis is also unlike Mahler, not as sophisticated perhaps, but creating a different flavour of psychological angst.
The star of the symphony was Jurowski, who has this complex score down to a T. However, Thomas Hampson came a close second. One unfortunate legacy of Das Lied on the work is the tendency for the orchestra to drown out the soloists. Nobody really fought that in this performance, but it did mean that both soloists had often to sing at the very top of there dynamic ranges. And Hampson's velvety, luxurious tone is just as secure at that volume as it is in the mezzo forte. One or two of the songs are little low for him, but on the whole it was an excellent performance. Melanie Diener sang the solo part well, but was comprehensively outclassed by Hampson. She had all the notes though, and plenty of drama.
An evening of curiosities then, well performed, especially by the orchestra who, as usual, gave their best for Jurowski. A welcome break from Mahler too, although I see from the programme that the LPO's next meeting with him is only at the end of the week.
(This concert was recorded by the BBC and will be broadcast on Radio 3 at 7pm on 1 February)