Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra planned to visit Hungary. but the tour didn't come off for reasons beyond their control. But the programmes they chose remained for the two London concerts on 26th and 29th January at the Royal Festival Hall. Big, complex programmes, held together by their references to separate Austrian and Hungarian traditions.

Roman Gontcharov
Roman Gontcharov

Hungary was honoured by prefacing both concerts with music by contemporary Hungarian composers. Jurowski's mastery of detail made Peter Eötvös's Shadows and the late, great György Ligeti's Lontano shimmer. Lontano is pretty much a modern music classic these days. Jurowski proves that it belongs in mainstream repertoire for its sheer beauty. Conventional assumptions of what form should be are irelevant. Lontano moves in a flow of colours and diaphanous textures. Jurowski's attention to detail paid off beautifully. He brought out the subtle gradations of pitch that move this music forward as if it were a living organism. Exqusitely atmospheric.

Although Barnabás Kelemen isn't a household name, he's highly regarded in Hungary. Bartók's Violin Concerto No 1 is a witty two part invention of sorts, inspired by a love affair that didn't last. The piece remained private, not published for 50 years. The wit is in the interplay between the Andante (elegant) and Allegro (vivacious), as well as between soloist and orchestra. The interplay between Kelemen and the orchestra was lively, almost flirtatious, which given the background, is totally appropriate. Kelemen is young, but exudes confidence. Two encores, Bartók and Bach. He's made several prize winning recordings already, and will be worth following when he returns to London. There's personality in his playing, which could be interesting as he matures, especially in this era of indentikit talent.

Three years ago, Vladimir Jurowski conducted an outstanding Mahler Das klagende Lied at the South Bank. He'd skirted carefully around Mahler, playing pieces like Blumine and Totenfeier before approaching the symphonies, but Das klagende Lied remains his finest Mahler achievement. This performance was more relaxed (it wasn't being recorded like the first) but that was no disdvantage since Das klagende Lied is based on folk-inspired poetry, and benefits from a whimsical touch.

Das klagende Lied is interesting because it was written when the composer was only 17. Throughout the piece, there are echoes of Wagner, specifically snatches of Das Rheingold and Siegfried's Journey down the Rhine. Das klagende Lied tells of dishonesty and retribution, of young heroes who aren''t completely what they seem. Mahler isn't borrowing in a haphazard romantic way but deftly using the references to expand what he's writing. "Pop up windows" in a sense because they open out onto wider vistas. In essence, he's already exploring the idea of embedding song in symphony. An experienced listener will also pick out snippets that will form Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Mahler's Symphony no 1.

There are also fairly explicit references, especially in the choral parts, to Carl Maria von Weber, another of Mahler's heroes. This connection is important, too. Weber's operas are wonderful as music but not frequently performed as they're not specially stageworthy. The drama is in the music itself. Already Mahler is using musical form as theatre, without needing to go down the opera route. The solo parts are subsumed into the orchestra. There are no "roles" as such, nor character development. The choruses though are full of character in a looser sense of the word. Individual pairs of singers stand out from the ensemble, giving depth and connecting with the soloists. Two trebles add an otherworldly eeriness. An off stage orchestra is heard from afar, reinforcing the idea of two worlds co-existing, reality and the supernatural.

Royal Festival Hall acoustics do not favour solo singers. Oddly enough, it helps when they're positioned above the orchestra rather than arrayed in front, even if they have to sing over the orchestra. Melanie Diener, Christianne Stotijn, Michael König and Christopher Purves were very good, but the London Philharmonic Choir augmented by members of the Glyndebourne Opera Chorus, were extremely good. Since Das klagende Lied depends so much on a good chorus, they certainly helped make this performance a success. Less so the positioning of the off stage orchestra. Playing in the Green Bar, sometimes with the doors to the auditorium closed, isn't ideal. No matter how good the players were, the effect was unnatural. Positioning them in boxes is often a better solution.

Jurowski's good in Das klagende Lied because his attention to detail and fine tuning enhances the Romantic glow. It's almost more tone poem than oratorio. Indeed, the text is a poem, amd the soloists' parts don't exist as "parts" as such. Jurowski gets the atmospheric flow so well, that it makes the strange storyline seem plausible. Magic, created from pure music.