Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander von Zemlinsky share almost exactly the same dates (the Russian 1873-1943, the Austrian 1871-1942). Both ended up in exile in the USA and both suffered criticism for not taking account of the musical advances around them. But Rachmaninov’s career began in ignominy (the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony) and concluded with the composer-pianist hailed as one of the greatest musical celebrities of the day; Zemlinsky’s started with enormous promise yet ended in poverty followed by a long posthumous neglect. Bringing the two composers together, therefore, made for a rewarding concert, one that combined a work that needed no introduction, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, with one from the same decade that has only relatively recently been brought into the repertoire, Zemlinsky’s tone poem Die Seejungfrau.

Vladimir Jurowski © Matthias Creutziger
Vladimir Jurowski
© Matthias Creutziger

Marc-André Hamelin has such an unassuming manner at the piano and wears his virtuosity so lightly that one often senses a disconnect between the visual impression and the sounds that emerge from his playing. His first entry as soloist in the Rachmaninov concerto managed to combine purpose with a sense of nonchalance, an almost languorous outlining of the opening theme before the rate of notes begins to amass. Likewise, he gave a meltingly lyrical but unsentimental exposition of the second theme, in which, as everywhere, the articulation was deliciously clean yet pregnant with colour, tone and emotion. In the second movement he combined shapely phrasing with just the right amount of expressive rubato, matched throughout by the sumptuous playing of Vladimir Jurowski’s London Philharmonic. And even when the temperature in the music rises, such as in the link to the finale, there was never any feeling of barnstorming or flashiness, just a serious presentation of the melodic and rhythmic impulse. The finale itself was sprightly at the start, powerfully purposeful by its end, and even through its welter of notes Hamelin’s touch was light, airy and focused, allowing the counterpoint to speak and the harmonic subtleties to tell. Above all, this was a profoundly musical interpretation, one in which the listener was able to marvel at the sheer detail of Rachmaninov’s compositional magic while revelling in the virtuosic ease that Hamelin brought to it. He capped it with a typically fleet-footed encore of a little Gershwin fantasy by Earl Wild that had a captivating mood all of its own.

The concert programme note recalled an early performance of the concerto in 1910 in which Rachmaninov, as soloist, was accompanied by Gustav Mahler, then at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. If that is one historic concert that makes one wish time travel were possible, so does the concert that took place in Vienna five years earlier which saw the premieres of two of the grandest leviathans of Austro-German late Romanticism, Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande and Zemlinsky’s Seejungfrau. Unfortunately for Zemlinsky, his work was overshadowed by his colleague’s on the day, he withdrew it and it only resurfaced in the 1980s. In fact, some extra music for the central movement, cut before the first performance, only came to light a year or two ago and this performance was effectively the London debut of the complete score. An expansive, three-movement tone poem inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, it was one of the first works written in the wake of Zemlinsky’s affair with his pupil, the infamous femme fatale Alma Schindler, who had just unceremoniously abandoned him to marry Mahler. And it’s impossible not to see an autobiographical reason for choosing this story about another rejected love, since the composer poured his musical heart into the score, a masterpiece of fin-de-siècle Viennese opulence, on a par with Mahler, Strauss and early Schoenberg.

Jurowski has a proven track record as one of the leading advocates of the music of Zemlinsky and his contemporaries, and he piloted the LPO’s players through the choppy seas of the mermaid’s realm with real mastery. The composer writes for a huge orchestra, typical of its time and place, but the many-layered textures had freshness and a kind of chiaroscuro light to them, while Zemlinsky’s memorable melodies and motifs were lovingly shaped and the poignant harmonies had deep emotional pull.