It has taken some time for Vladimir Jurowski, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, to claim the German repertoire of his octogenarian predecessor, Kurt Masur, but this programme of Mendelssohn, Mahler and Brahms established his right to do so. It would be hard to imagine two musicians less alike – Masur all experience and instinct, Jurowski the youthful embodiment of calculation and control. But Jurowski’s head has guided him to a point where his interpretations have their own validity.
In Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony, for example, he peeled back the sound and applied the principles of the early music movement: vibrato-free strings, hard timpani sticks, fleet tempi. The effect was revolutionary, with the LPO sounding almost identical to the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Jurowski’s other regular London collaborator. The pace was too quick in the second movement: the melodies had insufficient room to register and instrumental detail was lost.
Elsewhere, though, Jurowski uncovered Mendelssohn’s early Romantic provenance, with echoes of Weber in the first movement and a surprising foretaste of Wagner in the chorales. For anyone reared on plush 20th-century orchestral sound, the symphony was in places unrecognisable. Jurowski made it stand to attention.
The same treatment did not produce the same results in Brahms’s Third Symphony. There was a similar transparence, elegance, continuity (no breaks between movements). With double basses repositioned along the back of the platform, the sound had a central European depth and poise – very Brahmsian. But this is music that needs to breathe, and Jurowski was reluctant to let it do so, especially in the third movement, where the exquisitely moulded LPO winds needed more space.
What intellectual context these two symphonies were supposed to provide for Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) was impossible to divine. What they did create was a sympathetic emotional context, for their relatively untroubled landscape threw into relief the controlled pain of Mahler’s bleakest and most intimate music – sung here with candour and ethereal calm by Sarah Connolly.