Desire and death were the underlying themes of Vladimir Jurowski’s latest concert with the London Philharmonic, which prefaced Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the prelude to act one of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and a group of Strauss songs, sung by the British-German soprano Sarah Wegener.
Jurowski has become an exemplary Mahlerian of late, and his interpretation of the Fifth startled with its combination of intelligence and directness. The opening funeral march, heavy with intimations of imperial decline, led into a fearsome account of the second movement, rarely, if ever, bettered in its terror and elation, the emergence from turmoil of the closing chorale quite breathtakingly done.
After the edgy scherzo, the final movements swept the gathering tensions away. Jurowski could have held back more in the adagietto, widely regarded as Mahler’s declaration of love for his future wife, Alma. His tempi were fractionally too swift, in an attempt, I suspect, to avoid the cloying emotionalism that can sometimes cling to the music at this point. The finale, however, was unambiguously and gloriously optimistic, with none of the suggestions of vacuous triumph that some interpreters bring to it. The playing was outstanding throughout, with beautifully focused trumpet, horn and woodwind solos and a wonderful richness of tone in the strings.
The warm LPO string sound also spoke volumes in the Tristan prelude. Jurowski was anything but meditative here, and a throb of tension was palpable throughout. Given the prevailing headiness, the Liebestod would have made a more fitting close than the concert ending used on this occasion, but the impact was considerable nevertheless.
Wegener, meanwhile, a late replacement for the indisposed Diana Damrau, is a fine Straussian, with a warm tone, and a telling yet understated way with words, which enabled her to suggest both the cool sensuality of Freundliche Vision, and the vulnerability of Allerseelen. Wiegenlied, taken too slowly, was short on rapture, but she did wonderful things with Morgen!, where her voice hovered in dreamy contemplation over the unfolding violin melody, exquisitely played by the LPO’s leader Pieter Schoeman.