The London Philharmonic Orchestra and their principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski presented a programme of beguiling rarities, begging the question why they are not performed more often.In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D, the answer is simply that this 1875 work has been overshadowed by his three final mature symphonies. In his Third, Tchaikovsky grapples with his perennial problem of structure and development. The unusual inclusion of a fifth movement – the ‘Alla tedesca’ waltz, which comes second – can be explained by the fact that he was working on Swan Lake at the time, and its lilting balletic quality seemed to fit the bill. In the final movement – a fugue – the composer was at pains to prove that he could undertake complex writing, even if the end result is a little dry and academic. But in the three remaining movements we have some beautiful music that hints at the symphonies to come. The fine string and woodwind writing in the fourth movement resembles Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and was warmly realised by the LPO players. They also excelled in the wistful third movement. But it was in the opening Introduction and Allegro that Jurowski and his orchestra really peeled away the instrumental layers, exposing some wonderful woodwind and brass elements.
The unfamiliarity of Alexander von Zemlinksky’s Six Maeterlinck Songs can be put down to a serious neglect of this composer’s work. Less successful in his time than Mahler, and never part of the emerging Second Viennese School, Zemlinksky, like his contemporary Franz Schreker, has been shunted to the fringes of the post-Romantic movement. The brief but intense and exquisitely orchestrated Maeterlinck songs had a notable champion in mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Although she sounded overwhelmed by the orchestra in the first song, The Three Sisters, her audibility and strength of delivery picked up in the rest of the cycle. There was a more equal balance between voice and orchestra in the fifth, achingly expressive song, And should he return one day, with its delicate use of harp, celeste and glockenspiel, and in the final, ambiguous, She came towards the castle.
Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater (1929) rarely gets a hearing because of its monumental size and relatively short duration. The fact that the text is in Polish (although a Latin text exists) also makes it a challenge to perform convincingly. The LPO and Chorus were fortunate in having two fine singers for the principal solo parts – soprano Elżbieta Szmytka and baritone Andrej Dobber, who were joined by Anne Sofie von Otter for the smaller mezzo part. The LPO Choir seemed to manage the language well, and they brought power and authenticity to the music. The hushed, quietly devotional, fourth movement was sung with the kind of ‘peasant’ simplicity that Szymanowski intended, while the fifth movement thundered forwards with an apocalyptic urgency. All three soloists, chorus and orchestra were united in the final section, with its tender, but troublingly ominous, message of resignation and acceptance.