Jurowski conducts Zemlinsky

It was, Jurowski told us, to be considered as part of a larger
programme in conjunction with the London Philharmonic’s Saturday concert
(Ligeti’s Lontano, BartÛk’s First Violin Concerto, and
Mahler’s Das klagende Lied). Anniversary boys Liszt and
Mahler would be celebrated and contextualised. One might make too much of that;
Jurowski mentioned the extraordinary late works of Liszt, but the Second Piano
Concerto is not among them. (Most are for piano solo, in any case.) Likewise,
though he lamented the neglect of so much of Liszt’s
œuvre, as opposed to Mahler’s, we heard neither a choral
work nor a symphonic poem, but a relatively mainstream piece, albeit one I was
hearing for the first time in concert. Nevertheless, the sense of Liszt,
Mahler, and three Hungarian composers sharing a continuum into which it would
not be so very difficult also to fit Zemlinsky, offered much to think about. It
was a pity that the planned repeat performances in Budapest had to be cancelled
in light of economic circumstances, but at the very least Hungary’s
Presidency of the European Union could be celebrated.

That conversation took place between the first and second works, since PÈter
Eˆtvˆs’s Shadows (1996) required an unusual seating arrangement,
necessitating considerable rearrangement for the Liszt concerto.
Shadows, for flute, amplified clarinet, and ensemble or orchestra,
here received the first British performance of its orchestral performance. On a
first hearing, it did not overstay its welcome, though I am not sure that it
proved a revelation either. It seemed well performed, not least by the two
soloists, flautist Sue Thomas and clarinettist Nicholas Carpenter. They held
centre stage, along with Jurowski, two percussionists and celeste player,
Catherine Edwards. Two groups of wind instruments, backs to the audience, acted
as ‘shadows’ to the soloists, whilst two groups of strings,
sparingly deployed, made up the rear (facing forwards). In three movements, the
work opens with dance-music: so far, so typically or stereotypically
‘Hungarian’. Contrast between regularity and irregularity caught
the ear. Neo-BartÛkian string and percussion sonorities proved attractive in
the second part, at least two mobile telephones less so. The arabesque dialogue
between flute and clarinet, with which the third movement opens, also brought
BartÛk, this time his ‘night music’, to mind, the prominent part
for celesta doing nothing to dispel — and why should it? — that
association. Space and time are clearly preoccupations here, though Boulez and
Stockhausen, for instance, would seem to have gone further, earlier. I may
well, however, have missed the point.

Alexander Markovich joined the orchestra for the Liszt work. This was not to
be a flawless performance — there were a few occasions on which soloist
and orchestra fell out of sync — but its spirit impressed. The white heat
of Sviatoslav Richter’s astounding recording with the equally astounding
LSO and Kirill Kondrashin — a Liszt Desert Island disc, especially
coupled with the B minor Sonata — may not have been felt, but this was
arguably a more exploratory performance, doubtless aided by Jurowski’s
conception of the work as more a symphonic poem with piano than a typical
concerto. (He referred to its single movement and monothematicism.) The LPO
players responded with verve and subtlety — yes, you read that word
correctly. They ensured, for instance, that the all-important woodwind opening
struck just the right, neo-Mozartian serenading note. To that, Markovich could
respond with due delicacy, rapture even, all performers making clear the
unorthodox nature of what could so easily resemble a mere virtuoso showpiece.
The fluidity of the pianist’s response to the score was especially
noteworthy, though all players were careful to ensure that this never descended
into formlessness. Virtuosity was present, of course, for instance in
Markovich’s thundering octave passages, but always, it seemed, at the
music’s service. Sharply profiled rhythmically where necessary, the
performance never became hard-driven; indeed, there was always plenty of light
and shade. Lower strings impressed with depth of tone in the lead up to the
beautiful duet between piano and cello (Kristine Blaumane). Liszt’s
chamber music, like Wagner’s, tended to form part of other works, but it
is no less chamber music for that. The march transformation, which some
puritans have condemned as ‘vulgar’, sounded nothing of the sort;
instead, it was dramatically stirring — and, more important, clear in its
thematic derivation. Liszt suffers terribly from poor or mediocre performances;
he did not here. As a sparkling encore, virtuosic in every sense, Markovich
offered a transcription of the ‘Skaters’ Waltz’ from Les
. I assume that it was Liszt’s, but not having heard it
before, cannot be sure.

Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, which I have long thought close
to a masterpiece, formed the second half to the concert. It is not so long
since the Royal Festival Hall heard what remains a relative rarity; Esa-Pekka
Salonen led a truly outstanding performance
from the Philharmonia
in March 2009. If ultimately Jurowski’s reading
did not quite convince me as Salonen’s had, it was interestingly
different and proved in many respects complementary. The opening drum rolls
resounded magnificently, but I felt much of the first movement unsettled in the
wrong way, Jurowski’s direction rendering the bar lines all too audible,
however fine the orchestral contribution in itself. Even in this movement,
however, the music settled down, and many instrumental details proved sharply
etched, not least the crucial flute lines. (The flute is as important to
Rabindranath Tagore’s verse as it is to Das Lied von der Erde, a
dangerous comparison, which often obscures as much as it reveals, yet which
retains some validity when drawn with care.) Moreover, Jurowski proved alert to
the teeming of those lines in combination, a combination that edged towards
Schoenberg. Zemlinsky was by no means a merely backward-looking composer in

What of the baritone soloist, Thomas Hampson? Response would largely, I
suspect, be a matter of taste. There could be no doubting the intelligence of
his verbal response, nor the quality of his diction. (The latter left no one in
doubt that he had, in the fifth movement, substituted ‘diesem
Zauber’ for ‘deinem Zauber’.) However, for those for whom
this is more important, there could be no doubting the vanished lustre of his
voice as a voice. The contrast is not quite so simple as that, for
sometimes — the final movement was a particularly notable example —
the voice had gained a pronounced beat; moreover, pitch could sometimes be more
hinted at than centred. Nevertheless, Hampson’s sincerity remained a
palpable constant.

Melanie Diener, likewise, did not impress in terms of vocal beauty. However,
her performance, in tandem with Jurowski’s, hinted at an operatic
quality, perhaps frustrated, to Zemlinsky’s inspiration. It is certainly
not the only way to perform the work, and sometimes lessened the importance of
song and symphony, but at its best, it revealed aspects one might not have
suspected. For instance, the fourth movement, ‘Sprich zu mir,
Geliebter!’, was taken daringly slowly, yet it soon became apparent that
its reimagination almost as an operatic scene could draw attention to the dark
malevolence (Die Frau ohne Schatten?) of Zemlinsky’s writing. As
for much of the performance, Jurowski highlighted modernistic timbres, where
Salonen had emphasised the work’s sometimes overwhelming — and
undoubtedly sincere — late-Romanticism. Flutes glanced towards
Pierrot lunaire, perhaps even to Le marteau sans maÓtre. (Now
there is a thought: Boulez conducts Zemlinsky? Probably not, though he has
recently been performing Szymanowski.) The dialogue between solo violin
(leader, Pieter Schoeman) and cello (Blaumane again), which introduces the
fourth movement, not only granted an opportunity, well taken, for soloists to
shine, but was musically captured as a dissonant yet still tonal turning

There was drama, too, quite in keeping with, indeed necessary to, the
operatic conception. The interlude following the young girl’s song
(no.2), in which she laments to her mother the passing of the young
prince’s carriage and its crushing of her ruby chain, displayed real
anger, putting this listener in mind of passages and attitudes from
Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. And yet, for all the tugging away from
a symphonic conception, when the voices fell silent, the final movement’s
coda proved integrative in properly symphonic fashion: thematic and dramatic
concerns now sounded as one. If I did not quite feel convinced that the
different approaches always cohered, there was much to admire and much to

The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 1 February. Readers
may therefore make up their own minds, and are warmly encouraged to do so.

Mark Berry

image_description=Vladimir Jurowski [Dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna; Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists]
product_title=PÈter Eˆtvˆs: Shadows (British premiere of orchestral version); Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto no.2 in A major, S.125; Alexander von Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony, op.18
product_by=Alexander Markovich (piano); Melanie Diener (soprano); Thomas Hampson (baritone); London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Wednesday 26 January 2011.
product_id=Above: Vladimir Jurowski [Dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna; Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists]