Mahlers Das klagende Lied featured in Vladimir Jurowskis first concert as Principal Conductor of the LPO, and even by his customary high standards this was an electrifying return to the work, although not one without niggling flaws.
Das klagende Lied caused the young Mahler many problems with its structure and scoring, leading him to revise it for nearly 20 years after he first completed it: he eventually decided to cut the first of the three parts and amend the other two, rewriting the text so that the story a macabre fairy tale of a prince killed by his brother in order to win the hand of an ice-cold queen remained intelligible.
The work still causes problems today what is it, for a start? Some commentators have called it the nearest Mahler got to writing his own opera; its certainly not an oratorio like any other I could name; and calling it a cantata is stretching that word to its limits.
Whatever it is, its certainly dramatic: Ive never heard the LPO sound so impressive, its sound spectrum ranging from massive and burnished to pinpoint and shimmering, and Jurowski managed Mahlers textures with an iron fist. The narrative seems to move back and forth continually between the orchestra and the singers, anguished cries from the chorus (a fairly fuzzy London Philharmonic Choir) being answered by the huge orchestral forces.
Jurowski placed his soloists up in the gallery, flanked by the chorus, and while this meant that the communication was faultless, their sound was often completely lost. Christianne Stotijn in particular found her way through, her luxurious mezzo-soprano cutting through the orchestral sound, but soprano Melanie Diener, through no fault of her own, struggled all night long. Tenor Michael Knig and baritone Christopher Purves fared better, while special praise goes to trebles Jacob Thorn and Leopold Benedict for their contributions as the ghostly voice of the murdered brother.
The Mahler was the post-interval counterweight to two works by Hungarian composers. Lontano was one of the works that made Ligetis reputation, its distant, faded sounds created by ever-changing, indistinct melodic statements drifting and clashing with one another. But what sounds aimless here is not really so, and Jurowskis precise management gave the performance just the right amount of direction to give it life.
Bartks Violin Concerto No. 1, written as a love-offering to the violinist Stefi Geyer, is at the other extreme, bursting with Bartks passions. Soloist Barnabs Kelemen very obviously felt the passion coursing through the work, but his dazzling finger work and technical skill left me rather unmoved in his hands, as ably supported by Jurowski and the LPO as he was, the piece became a mere showpiece for virtuosity, and I longed for him to tone down the showmanship and let his instrument sing a bit more. His two encores the Presto from Bartks Solo Violin Sonata, and the Sarabande from Bachs Partita in D minor only served to reinforce this feeling: Ive never heard any of the D minor Partita and been unmoved, but Kelemen almost achieved that.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk